Regular exercise and physical activity has many benefits, but it can also place a bit of stress on the body at times. Sprains and strains are injuries which occur to the muscles, tendons and ligaments we use during sports, exercise and regular daily activities; as a result of repetitive use, tearing or over-stretching them. Injuries occurring to muscles, tendons and ligaments are usually referred to as soft tissue injuries.
MUSCLES AND TENDONS
There are 3 main types of muscle in the body – skeletal muscle (for movement), involuntary smooth muscle (for breathing, digestion and other body functions), and involuntary cardiac muscle (which controls the heart). Skeletal muscles are the large areas of soft tissue which stretch across joints and between bones, which voluntarily contract and relax in order to help your body move around. Tendons are the dense, fibrous materials which connect your muscles to your bones. They help to stabilise muscles and limbs; and assist with body movements.
A strain is where your muscle fibres or tendons are stretched too far and torn. Strains occur as a result of working the muscle or tendon too hard, or sudden movement. They usually result in muscle pain, muscle weakness and sometimes swelling. Strains can occasionally cause some bleeding within the muscle, known as a haematoma. Inflammation can also occur to tendons, which can cause pain and tenderness near a joint….this is referred to as tendonitis.
Ligaments are the pieces of fibrous material in your body which connect your bones to each other. They are there to help make strong, stable joints.
Sprains occur when the ligaments holding a joint together are stretched and torn. This is usually the result of a joint being twisted, pulled or stretched too far. Sprains can cause pain and swelling, as well as bruising around a joint; the joint may also be quite difficult to move as a result of this pain and swelling.
WHAT TO DO FOR A SPRAIN OR STRAIN?
Well, the first thing that you should do is seek medical assessment! After a soft tissue injury, many people decide to ignore any medical treatment and just try to look after it themselves. While this may work out in many circumstances, it is not the best idea…..soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains can easily be confused for more serious injuries, such as hairline fractures, bone bruising and dislocation! If your injury seems to get worse within the first 24 hours, or it doesn’t start feeling better within 2-3 days, it is best to speak to a doctor.
Of course, the sooner you start treatment, the faster your injury can start to heal properly. Resting as soon as possible is one of the best things you can do….and avoiding any activity that reproduces the pain of your injury for a couple of days is also a smart idea. But after a few days, you should start some gentle movement again, as this can help the healing process and avoid further issues.
Elevation of the injured site can be helpful in early treatment. Where the site of a soft tissue injury exists below the level of the heart, blood and other fluids can pool in the area to a small degree, which can result in swelling and bleeding. By raising the injured area above the level of your heart, this swelling and bleeding can be minimised….but only do this if and when its actually practical!
By applying ice for a 20 minute period, every 2-3 hours, for the first few days, you can help to reduce the pain and swelling of a soft tissue injury. Despite what some people say, you should actually avoid applying heat to the injury within the first 48 hours, as this can potentially cause bleeding within the injured tissue, which can delay healing and possibly cause further problems……so steer clear of the heat rubs!
Anti-inflammatory medication can help reduce the pain and swelling of soft tissue injuries, but it is probably best to avoid these sorts of medications within the first 48 hours. They can theoretically do the same as heat treatments and encourage bleeding, which can delay healing. Paracetamol is the best choice for early pain relief….but anti-inflammatories should really only be used after a couple of days of rest to avoid any potential issues.
Compression bandages can help to minimise swelling of soft tissue injuries and assist with the healing process; while appropriate strapping can help to stabilise the joints and muscles as the healing process occurs. Physiotherapists are the best people to speak to here, as they can assist you with the best types of compression bandages and strapping to use; and how to apply them properly.
Usually, soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains take around 4-6 weeks to heal….depending on the severity of the injury and the general health of the individual. Speaking to a sports doctor or a physiotherapist is a good idea, as they can show you some exercises to help promote the healing process, in addition to rebuilding strength and flexibility.
CAN YOU PREVENT SPRAINS AND STRAINS?
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed way of avoiding these sorts of injuries; but there are a few things you can do to help minimise the risk of causing a sprain or strain.
Performing a proper warm up and cool down is important to reduce the risk of injuries to your muscles, as a result of sports and vigorous activities. Light activity for 2-5 minutes, followed by some gentle stretching, is a good way to prepare your body for more moderate or intense exercise. Also ensure you slowly reduce your activity level before you finish; and don’t forget to stretch again after exercising!
Remember to train your body properly; and allow appropriate time between training or workout sessions to allow your muscles to recover properly. Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet can also help to reduce the risk of sprains and strains as a result of sports and physical activities.
Regular visits to a physiotherapist are also a good idea. Physiotherapists can provide massage, which can reduce muscle tension and improve flexibility; and educate you on good preparation and stretching techniques that suit your specific type of exercise.
Sprains and strains are common place amongst physically active people. But with the proper treatment, we can help to achieve the best possible recovery in the shortest amount of time……and with the right routines before and after exercise, we can help to minimise the occurrence of these types of injuries!