Strains, sprains and fractures: How to tell them apart
by Michael Suk, MD, JD
Chair of the Geisinger Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
Soccer practice is done for the day, and your daughter or son comes home complaining of ankle or wrist pain from a slip and fall on the field.
How do you know if it’s a strain, a sprain — or a more serious fracture?
While any severe pain might warrant a visit to your Geisinger pediatrician, or even the emergency room, sprains, strains and fractures are different injuries with different symptoms. Here’s what you can look for the next time your child — or you — twist an ankle or take a fall.
Sprains versus strains
A sprain occurs when you stretch or tear ligaments, which are the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect the bones in your joints.
- Limited mobility
You can also ask your young athlete if they recall hearing or feeling a pop when the injury occurred. This can also be a sign of a sprain.
A strain is slightly different. It happens when you injure a muscle or tendon — the tissue that attaches muscle to bone. This can result from a single action or repeated actions that place stress on a muscle or tendon.
Like a sprain, a strain may cause pain, bruising and swelling. Other symptoms include:
- Muscle spasms
The activities associated with lots of sports — such as pivoting quickly on a basketball court or running on a wet, slippery soccer field — tend to lead to both strains and sprains.
Treating strains and sprains
Although they affect different tissues, strains and sprains can both benefit from treatment using the RICE method:
R – Rest the injury for 48 hours
I – Apply ice for 20 minutes at a time, 4 to 8 times a day
C – Compress the injury to reduce swelling
E – Elevate the injured limb about 8 inches above the heart
Even better than treatment? Encouraging your young athlete to know their limits and warm up before any rigorous activity. Wearing all suggested safety gear and properly fitting shoes can also help ward off injury.
When to see a doctor
Mild sprains and strains can usually be treated at home. However, it’s time to seek professional medical care if you are concerned that your child has fractured a bone.
Visit the doctor if your child:
- Can’t move the joint
- Can’t bear to put weight on the limb
- Experiences numbness in the injured area
- Has swelling or bruising directly over a bone
If you’re worried that your child might have a fracture, or the pain of a strain or sprain won’t go away, visit one of Geisinger’s convenient walk-in clinics for a consultation with a skilled, compassionate physician, with no appointment necessary.
Proper care of sports-related injuries can alleviate pain and help prevent future problems. We look forward to helping you keep your young athlete safe and healthy, and getting them back in the game, injury-free and ready to play.
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