Sprains and strains: Where to go for care

July 5th, 2019
A father checks his son's ankle while sitting on the ground playing basketball outside.
You can often care for sprains and strains at home. If pain persists, see your doctor. Photo: Getty Images.

We all get sprains and strains. Kids get them on the playground at school; adults get them trying to impress somebody at the gym.

Sprains and strains are similar, but “not interchangeable,” said Dr. Amanpreet Dulai, a primary care physician specializing in pediatrics at the UCHealth Primary Care Clinic – Yosemite, in Denver.

A strain is the overstretching of the ligaments – tissue that attaches bone to bone, mostly in joints. A sprain is an injury to the tendons, which attach muscle to bone. But the treatments for them are similar.

So when does a sprain or strain require medical attention? And where should you seek that attention?

Self-care:

For a minor strain or sprain, most people can self-treat by taking Tylenol or ibuprofen, resting the injured body part, applying ice or a compress, and elevating it.

Ice has long been recommended for such injuries, but it doesn’t help in all cases. If you do apply ice, do it for about 20 minutes, three times a day. Also, a bandage can do more harm than good, if not properly applied, Dulai said.

“If there’s just a little bit of swelling or bruising, and some pain, and maybe can’t move it a lot, but you can move it,” chances are you can treat it at home, she said. But if progress at home isn’t good, “it’s OK to see your primary care physician in the next few days to get advice on how to take care of it.”

See your doctor:

If you’ve had an injury for more than five days and it’s not getting better, go see a doctor, Dulai suggested. A doctor can check the injury and advise a protocol for treatment for your particular situation.

Urgent care:

If you feel like your injury needs medical attention but you can’t get in to see your doctor, you might try going to urgent care, she said.

Emergency care:

For leg injuries, which are common, “if you can’t walk on it for more than three steps, you need to see somebody right away. If you have numbness or tingling, you need to get medical attention. Or if the limb looks bent or misshapen or discolored or is not able to bear weight, get immediate care. You need to rule out that you don’t have a fracture, which can be dangerous.”

Other advice:

Kids are especially vulnerable, Dulai said.

“Kids have growth plates at the ends of the long growing bones. They are weaker than ligaments or tendons, so you need to rule out the possibility of what’s called a Salter-Harris fracture. This needs a proper diagnosis soon, because kids’ bones heal so quickly, they can heal incorrectly if not treated within a few days.”

Always err on the side of caution with children, especially younger children, she added.

More advice:

There’s a really good website called ‘Stopsportsinjuries’ that tells how to avoid them in younger children,” Dulai said. “It tells you what to do to protect yourself and prepare for sports participation – things like warming up, stretching, staying hydrated and having the right gear.”

And, finally, she says of any injuries: “When in doubt, get evaluated, it’s not your job to be the doctor.”

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.