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Learn to treat these common injuries.

Sports and physical fitness teach us to win with grace, lose with dignity and push our bodies to the next level. And occasionally, they teach us we’re at risk for ankle sprain, wrist strain and other exercise-related injuries.

When you feel a sharp pain in your ankle after a fall, or your child comes home from practice complaining about an injury, how do you know if it’s a strain, a sprain or a more serious fracture?

While any severe pain might mean a visit to your doctor or even the emergency room, sprains, strains and fractures are different injuries with different symptoms. 

Know what to watch for the next time you twist an ankle or take a fall on the field. 

What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

Stretching or tearing ligaments, the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect the bones in your joints, is a sprain

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • Pain
  • Limited mobility
  • Swelling
  • Bruising

Did you hear or feel a pop when you were injured? This can also be a sign of a sprain.

A strain is slightly different. It happens when you injure a muscle or a tendon (the tissue that attaches muscle to bone) through one or more actions that stress the muscle or tendon.

Like a sprain, a strain may cause pain, bruising and swelling. Other symptoms include:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Cramping
  • Weakness
  • Immobility

Activities associated with a lot of sports — such as pivoting quickly on a basketball court or a football field, or running on a wet, slippery soccer field — lead to strains and sprains.

Sprain vs. strain treatment

Although they affect different tissues, strains and sprains 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

But prevention is always preferable to treatment. Doing some pre-game stretching and light jogging loosens up your muscles, reducing the risk of injury altogether. 

When to see a doctor for your sprain or strain

You can usually treat a mild sprain or strain at home. But if you’re worried you may have a fractured bone, it’s time to seek professional medical care. 

Visit the doctor if you:

  • Can’t move the joint
  • Can’t bear to put weight on the limb
  • Feel numbness in the injured area
  • Have swelling or bruising directly over a bone

Suspect you might have a fracture? Pain from a strain or sprain won’t go away? “Visit one of Geisinger’s orthopaedic urgent care clinics for a consultation,” suggests Michael Jung, MD, orthopaedic trauma surgeon at Geisinger. “You can even get advice online if you aren’t sure what to do.”

What’s the difference between a break and a fracture?

Whether you miss a step on a staircase or get tripped while blocking a goal, breaks and fractures happen. But are they different — and how should they be treated? 

“These terms are often used interchangeably,” says Dr. Jung. “Both refer to any loss of continuity with a bone. Bones can lose integrity over time and develop a hairline crack that’s hardly visible on an X-ray, or they can shatter into several pieces from an acute trauma. And while one provider may refer to your injury as a fracture and another may mention a break, both terms are appropriate.” 

Common types of fractures 

The most common types of fractures include:

  • Segmental (one bone broken in two places)
  • Comminuted (one bone broken in three or more places) 
  • Compression (bone crushed and flattened)
  • Spiral (a spiral-shaped fracture around the bone)
  • Transverse (fracture forms a straight line across the bone)
  • Greenstick (not serious enough to cause the bone to separate) 

Treating fractures and breaks 

The average fracture takes about six to eight weeks to heal. Bones typically heal themselves by creating new bone tissue that repairs the fracture. The new bone tissue forms at the edges of the break, knitting the broken pieces back together. At first, the new bone tissue is soft, which is why we protect small bones like fingers or toes by immobilizing them. Your doctor will immobilize larger bones using options like:

  • Casts
  • Slings
  • Splints
  • Wraps
  • Boots 

These devices allow you to heal quickly and with little risk of getting injured again.

When to see a doctor for fractures or breaks

It’s not always easy to tell if you or your child have a sprain, strain, fracture or break. Swelling and bruising directly over a bone or being unable to put weight on the limb means you should visit your nearest urgent care clinic. If the injury is serious or life-threatening, call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room. 

Proper care for sports-related injuries can alleviate pain and help prevent future problems. And that can get you back on the field in no time.

Next steps: 

Learn about orthopaedic care at Geisinger
Find an ortho urgent care near you 
Know how to spot concussion symptoms

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