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How to treat sprains and strains

Pains, strains, aches and sprains. We all want to lead a healthy and active lifestyle, however, these common injuries often put a stop to that, impacting our daily lives.

However, with care and preparation, there are ways to avoid these injuries or mitigate their damage when they do occur.

With some simple tips, we can all start leading our best, most healthy lives.


A sprain is a particular type of injury that affects your joints; ankles, knees, wrists and thumbs in particular as these are the joints most commonly put under stress.

Sprains happen when a ligament - the fibrous tissue that connects bones - is overextended or torn.

The most common sprain is the ankle sprain. As our ankles hold our entire body’s weight, they are under the most pressure. A misstep, such as an awkward step on an uneven surface, can force the ankle out of its usual position, tearing the ligaments and causing a sprain.

While a sprain can be excruciatingly painful, they are not usually serious, and tend to heal on their own.


Strains, similar to sprains, can cause pain, swelling and a loss of mobility in the affected area.

However, this is because they affect muscles and tendons, rather than ligaments.

Tendons are the tissues that connect bones to muscles and are key to body movement. When we overextend the muscle, we risk tearing the tendon.

The most common types are lower back strains, and in the hamstring muscle on the back of the thigh.

A back or thigh strain can be brought on from lifting heavy objects or exerting excessive force upon our muscles and tendons.


Sprains and strains can be treated in the same manner. A combination of rest, ice, compression and elevation will be enough to deal with most sprains and strains. However, a doctor should always be consulted, particularly in severe cases. If any of these symptoms occur, then a doctor should be consulted as soon as possible:

  • Inability to walk without pain
  • Complete lack of motion in the affected joint
  • Numbness in the injured area
  • Pain directly over the bone of an injured joint

The first step to self-care treatment is to rest. Stop any activity and take the weight off the injury. If it is a leg-based strain or sprain, sit down and put your feet up.

If it is in the arms, place the affected arm on a desk or table to prop it up. For back injuries, lie down in a straight position.

Next, apply an ice pack to the injury for up to twenty minutes. This will help ease pain and reduce swelling by decreasing blood flow to the area. However, never apply ice directly to the skin, as this can cause frostbite. Instead, wrap the ice in a thin towel or cloth.

Compressing an injury can further prevent swelling and will help to keep the area immobilized. An elastic bandage or support brace will do this excellently. Make sure the bandage is not so tight that it interferes with blood flow. The compression should be firm but not painful.

Finally, elevate the injury, ideally to a level above your heart. This will minimize swelling by slowing down the blood flow to the area. A simple pillow or two under the injured area can greatly help with this.

Painkillers such as paracetamol, anti-inflammatory drugs and codeine can be used for short-term pain suppression from a sprain until you recover. Always speak to your doctor before taking medication to ensure there are no interactions with medication you may already be on.

In some cases, the torn ligament, muscle or tendon may require surgery in order to be repaired as they will be too damaged to fix themselves. In these cases, it is important to not wait and consult with a doctor immediately, as the sooner the surgery can occur, the lower the chance of permanent muscle damage. Preventing a strain or sprain in the first place is key, so make sure to:

  • Warm-up before exercising
  • Always wear fitting shoes that are appropriate for the activity
  • Maintain good muscle strength
  • Exercise your flexibility, particularly for joints that may be under pressure. This can strengthen the ligaments
  • Be careful around uneven surfaces
  • Use support braces for previously injured joints

If it is unclear whether a strain or a sprain has occurred, look for this simple sign. In a sprain, bruising will occur around the afflicted joint. In a strain, the affected muscle will undergo spasms due to the torn tendon.

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