Sprains and strains: Where to go for care

Oct. 15, 2023
A father checks his son's ankle to see if it is sprained while sitting on the ground playing basketball outside.
You can often care for sprains and strains at home. If the 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.”

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 sprains and strains

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.

If there’s just a little bit of swelling or bruising and some pain, and maybe you can’t move it a lot, but you can move it, chances are you can treat it at home. 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.

When to see your doctor for strains or sprains

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

Urgent care for sprains or strains

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.

Emergency care for sprains and strains

For leg injuries, which are common, if you can’t walk on it for more than three steps, you should see a medical provider 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 for sprains and strains

Kids are especially vulnerable to strains and sprains because they have growth plates at the ends of the long-growing bone. They are weaker than ligaments or tendons, so it needs to be ruled 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.

The National Council of Youth Sports has information on how to avoid sprains and strains in younger children. It has information on how to protect yourself and prepare for sports participation – things like warming up, stretching, staying hydrated and having the right gear.

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs and a regular contributor to UCHealth Today. She has written travel articles for major U.S. newspapers and national, regional and local magazines. She spent 32 years as an award-winning writer, reporter and editor for The Gazette in Colorado Springs.