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Strains and Sprains

Medically reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD

What Are Strains and Sprains?

A strain is when a muscle or tendon (tissue that attaches muscle to bone) is stretched too far. A strain is sometimes called a "pulled muscle." Depending on the level of muscle strain, it may heal within a few weeks, but reinjury can happen.

A sprain is when (bands of tissue that hold bone to bone at the joints) stretch too far or tear. A sprain can take 4–6 weeks to heal or sometimes longer.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Strains and Sprains?

Strains and sprains can cause:

  • pain, either at the time of injury or later
  • tenderness in the soft tissue, usually close to the bone
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • muscle spasms
  • weakness or pain when using or moving the injured area

What Causes Strains and Sprains?

Strains can happen when someone puts a lot of pressure on a muscle, such as when lifting a heavy object. They usually happen when someone is active, contracting, stretching, or working body part. They're more likely when a person hasn't warmed up first to get blood circulating to the muscles. Strains are common when athletes return to a sport after the off-season. They often affect the muscles in their backs, necks, or legs.

Sprains are caused by injuries, such as twisting an ankle or knee. They're common in sports, but can happen any time. They are more common in older kids and teens than in younger kids.

How Are Strains and Sprains Diagnosed?

To diagnose strains and sprains, doctors:

  • ask questions about the injured body part
  • do an exam, observing range of motion and doing strength tests

Depending on the injury, the doctor may order an X-ray or other imaging study to see if there are other injuries, such as a broken bone. Ultrasounds can sometimes diagnose a minor tear.

How Are Strains and Sprains Treated?

Treatment for strains and sprains usually includes:

  • rest for a few days to protect the injury and start getting better. The doctor, a physical therapist, or a trainer can usually help figure out when it's time to get the injured area moving again.
  • treatments to help with swelling you can do right away, such as:
    • ice wrapped in a towel placed on the area for about 20 minutes every 1–2 hours
    • an elastic bandage wrapped around the area for compression or a compression sleeve
    • raising the injured area above the level of the heart
    • wrapping or splinting the injured part of the body to keep it still for a few days
  • strengthening exercises, especially movements that lengthen muscles
  • pain medicine for no more than 1 week

Doctors may treat some strains and sprains with a splint or temporary cast.

Can Kids With a Sprain or Strain Play Sports?

A child or teen who has a sprain or strain probably needs to take some time off from sports. They can go back when:

  • the swelling goes down
  • the sport does not cause pain
  • the doctor says it's OK
  • they can play without a limp
  • they can fully move the injured area
  • they’re back to full strength

What Else Should I Know?

Strains and sprains usually heal without any lasting problems. Be sure to follow the doctor's instructions so the injury heals as quickly as possible.

To avoid strains and sprains, remind young athletes to do a good warm-up before activity. They can try jogging, high knees, butt kicks, and active stretching. After activity, remind them to do some static stretching (holding each stretch for 30 seconds or longer).

After a strain or sprain, a coach, personal trainer, doctor, or physical therapist can teach your child how to do strengthening exercises to help with recovery and lower the risk of reinjury.

Medically reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date reviewed: September 2022