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An Athlete's Guide to Sprained Joints, Strains, and Sports

May 26, 2021

Physical activity is extremely beneficial to the body and the mind. It not only leads to longer life but to a more fulfilling and happier one. Of course, with any physical activity, from walking to mountain climbing, injuries are a constant threat to the athlete. Sprains and strains occur more commonly than other types of sports-related injuries.

Understanding the difference between the two, recognizing these types of injuries, and knowing when and whom to seek help from is critical to any successful exercise or sports athlete.

What is a Sprain?
A sprain occurs when tissue, called a ligament, connects two bones and passes over a joint while stabilizing that joint is overstretched or torn.

The most common place to have a sprain is where the ankle joint connects to the bone of the lower leg (i.e., sprained ankle). This can occur fairly easily by twisting your foot when placing it down while walking, going up or down steps, jogging, or running.

Sprained joints can occur in other places, however, where ligaments hold bones to joints.

What is a Strain?
The tissue that holds a bone to a muscle, called a tendon, is overstretched or torn with a strain.

Strains happen most often in the back muscles or the back of the thigh (upper leg) where the hamstring muscles are. Sports that involve twisting motions are more likely to produce strains such as wrestling, soccer, hockey, and football. Using your hands a lot during sports like tennis, rowing, or golf can cause strains in your hands and arms muscles.

What are the Symptoms of Sprained Joints and Strains? How Can I Tell Them Apart?
Of course, pain is the most common symptom for both sprains and strains. Pain lets athletes know something is wrong with their bodies. It often doesn’t tell them much more. So, after recognizing an injury, the first step in recognizing a sprain versus a strain is to look at the injured area and think about how the injury happened.

A twisted ankle while jogging will most commonly be a sprain, while significant back pain after twisting to throw a football will likely be a strain. Thinking about what was done just before the injury or pain occurred can be very helpful to the athlete and the doctor.

The table below lists some of the most common symptoms seen in sprained joints and strains. Notice some symptoms overlap and others, most commonly seen in either a sprain or a strain.

Sprain: Ligament (Bone ↔ Bone)

●      Pain in the area of the joint

●      Swelling, often with bruising

●      Hearing a “pop” at the time of injury

●      Unable to move the joint

●      without pain or at all

Strain: Tendon (Bone ↔ Muscle)

●      Pain with tenderness at the muscle

●      Swelling, usually with redness

●      Muscle spasms in the injured area

●      Cramping of the injured muscle

●      Movement is harder – weak muscle

Common Types of Sprained Joints and Strains
Each sport has its own “common sprain and strain,” but each injury is different for each athlete. The recovery process is just as individualized, too.

Sprained Ankle Treatments from Strains
Ankle sprains can occur when the ankle is twisted to the outside, inside, or a high ankle sprain which occurs when the ligament holding the two bones in your lower leg to the ankle joint is injured. This can cause the two bones to separate.

Often, locating the area of pain (i.e., inner, outer, or just above the ankle) can help pinpoint the type of ankle sprain. The main at-home treatment for ankle sprains is R.I.C.E. = Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation for 24 - 48 hours.

Groin Pull or Hamstring Strains in Sports
These injuries occur with sudden acceleration or deceleration or quickly cutting to the side while running. Football players commonly engage in these types of movements and are especially prone to these injuries. With these injuries, the tendons attaching the groin and thigh muscles to bones are injured. Muscle strain treatment often consists of ice, heat, electronic stimulation, and ultrasound.

ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) Tears from Sports
This ligament is critical to stabilizing your knee joint. It is one of the ligaments that attach the thigh to the lower leg passing over and stabilizing the knee.

It is one of the most commonly torn ligaments in sudden decelerations, sharp cuts to the side, or even landing on the ground the wrong way.

When the ACL is torn, the knee becomes unstable and often gives out and buckles suddenly without warning. While some more conservative measures can help with mild cases, surgery is often the only option for repairing a torn ACL.

What is a Tennis Elbow?
Tennis elbow can be caused by repetitive arm motions such as playing tennis, handball, or even typing for hours.

The tendons on the outside of the forearm connecting it with the elbow joint become irritated, inflamed, and even degraded. Treatment often consists of rest and ice, along with physical therapy and cortisone injections. Remember that even though it is called “tennis” elbow, this injury is seen in many other activities that require repetitive arm motions.

Sprained Wrists and Sports
Any athlete can experience a wrist sprain. It doesn’t require any specific movement common to one type of sport. All that has to happen is a loss of balance resulting in a fall. Instinctively, we put our hands out to stop the fall.

But, of course, this doesn’t prevent us from continuing to fall. It may save us from experiencing injury to the face and head, but the weight of the body landing on the hand forces it back towards the forearm.

A sudden fall can cause the ligaments in the wrist to tear or break as they are stretched beyond their limits. Sprained joints and wrists can be difficult to diagnose on your own. Many small bones are in a hand, and these can also be fractured in fall-type injury.

To diagnose a sprained wrist, your physician or orthopedic surgeon will need to perform a thorough physical exam, often with imaging such as X-ray, MRI, or other types of imaging where dye is injected into the wrist to make it easier to see the structures or the insertion of a tiny camera to actually look at the anatomy inside the wrist.

Treatment depends on the severity of the injury. Rest, ice, compression, and election (i.e., R.I.C.E.) may be adequate for mild injuries, while more severe injuries often require casts, splints, and even surgery for proper healing.

Shoulder Muscle Strains and Sports
Because the shoulder is one of the most flexible joints in the body with many different muscles attached to it with tendons, it is susceptible to various injuries, including rotator cuff tears, sprains, and muscle strains.

A shoulder strain can happen when one or more of the ligaments in the shoulder stretches or tear during sports requiring raising the arm over the head, such as in swimming or tennis. In addition, limited movement can just as likely cause a shoulder strain, such as holding a heavy backpack in the same position for a long time. Consequently, shoulder strains are not uncommon injuries.

Like most strains, rest, ice, and physical therapy may be helpful for less severe injuries. However, steroid injections and surgery are often required when the more conservative treatments do not correct the problem.

When At-Home Diagnosis and Treatment is Not Enough
Often, we are reluctant to acknowledge the severity of a sports injury.

There are several reasons for this.

1. First, we may blame ourselves for not stretching properly or “overdoing it.”

2. Second, there may be fear that the injury will require professional treatment such as lengthy physical therapy and surgery.

3. Third, an athlete might be convinced that they will never be the same again once they experience an injury.

For all of these reasons, some athletes put off seeking professional help when in reality, visiting a competent and well-respected orthopedic doctor can speed the healing process, assist you to heal fully, and return you to the athlete you were.

For information and the best treatment options for sprains and strains related to sports, contact the Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey today. We can provide you with urgent care at a location near you in New Jersey.

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