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If you've ever sprained your ankle, you know how severe the resulting pain can be - but maybe that sprain was actually a strain. The amount of pain in each case can be virtually equal. Often, the only way to find out what you have is to see a doctor.
Sprains are a stretch and/or tear of a ligament, the tissue connecting two bones. Ligaments stabilize and support the body's joints. For example, ligaments in the knee connect the upper leg with the lower leg, enabling you to walk and run.
A sprain is caused by trauma - such as a fall, twist or blow to the body - that knocks a joint out of position and overstretches or even ruptures supporting ligaments. Some examples: when you land on an outstretched arm, slide into a base, land on the side of the foot or run on an uneven surface.
A ligament is stretched in a mild sprain, but there is no joint loosening or instability. A moderate sprain partially tears the ligament, producing joint instability and some swelling. With a severe sprain, ligaments tear completely or separate from the bone. This loosening interferes with joint function.
Sprains happen most often in the ankle. In fact, sprains and strains account for more than one-third of lower leg injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments. If ligaments don't heal correctly, the result can be chronic ankle instability and recurring sprains. "No one is inherently more prone to sprains, but a prior injury definitely increases your risk," says orthopedic surgeon Mitchell Cooper, MD, with Lehigh Valley Health Network. Repeated sprains can lead to ankle arthritis, a loose ankle or tendon injury.
Wrist sprains can be as difficult as fractures to treat. Like fractures, if a serious wrist sprain or ligament tear is not treated properly, it can affect how your wrist functions and cause long-term problems.
"Some sprains are caused by playing sports, others from everyday activities like stepping in a hole in the lawn," says orthopedic surgeon Barry Ruht, MD, with Lehigh Valley Health Network. All sports and exercises, even walking, carry a risk for sprains. The areas of the body most at risk for a sprain depend on the specific activities involved. For example, basketball, volleyball, soccer and other jumping sports share a risk for foot, leg and ankle sprains.
More adults than children sustain sprains; sprains are uncommon in children.
Strains are a twist, pull and/or tear of a muscle and/or tendon. Tendons are cords of tissue that connect muscles to bones.
Acute strains result when a muscle or tendon is stretched or pulled.
Chronic strains result from overuse of muscles and tendons through prolonged, repetitive movement. Inadequate rest during intense training can cause a strain.
With a mild strain, the muscle or tendon is stretched or pulled slightly. Some muscle function will be lost with a moderate strain, in which the muscle or tendon is overstretched and slightly torn. In severe strains, the muscle or tendon is partially or completely ruptured, leaving you incapacitated.
These are some common strains:
Back strain occurs when the muscles that support the spine are twisted, pulled or torn. Athletes who engage in excessive jumping, such as during basketball or volleyball, are vulnerable to this injury.
Hamstring muscle strain is a tear or stretch of a major muscle in the back of the thigh. This injury can sideline you for up to six months. The likely cause is muscle strength imbalance between the hamstrings and the quadriceps, the muscles in the front of the thigh. Kicking a football, running or leaping to make a basket can pull a hamstring. Hamstring injuries tend to recur.
Soccer, football, hockey, boxing, wrestling and other contact sports put athletes at risk for strains. So do sports that feature quick starts, such as hurdling, long jump and running races. Gymnastics, tennis, rowing, golf and other sports that require extensive gripping put participants at higher risk for hand strains. Elbow strains frequently occur in racquet, throwing and contact sports.