Whoops! Now you’ve done it. That stumble off the curb has left your ankle swollen and bruised. Or perhaps all that lifting when you cleaned out the garage has your back in spasms of crampy pain. Unlike fractures, when bone is injured, sprains and strains are injuries to the soft tissues. A sprain occurs when a ligament (the tissue that connects bones at the joint) is stretched or torn. A strain occurs when a muscle is stretched or pulled or a tendon (the tissue that connects muscle to bone) is stretched or torn.
Although painful, sprains and strains are usually minor injuries, provided you treat them properly. To remember the first aid for sprains and strains, learn the acronym RICE:
- Rest. Give the injured area a rest. You may continue some physical activity, but avoid activities that cause pain or swelling.
- Ice. Apply ice as soon as possible after the injury occurs to help limit inflammation, bruising and pain. Use a cold pack (a bag of frozen peas will work in a pinch) or place the injured area in a slush bath (fill a bucket with ice and water) for 15 to 20 minutes and then repeat every two to three hours for the first 48 to 72 hours.
- Compression. Wrap the injured area with an elastic bandage until the swelling stops. Begin wrapping at the farthest area from your heart and take care not to wrap so tightly that you slow circulation.
- Elevation. Prop the injured area so it’s elevated above your heart, especially at night. Gravity will help reduce swelling by draining excess fluid.
You can take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. After two days, try to use the injured area gently. You should see gradual but steady improvement. Most sprains and strains will heal in about two to four weeks, but see your doctor if swelling, pain or weakness persists.