Muscle Sprains and Strains

As a part of our Exercises to Recover from Sports Injuries series, we are outlining common sports injuries and offering some recovery tips.

Sprains and Strains to your muscles are some of the most common injuries, it is very likely that you will have at least one sprain or strain in your lifetime.

Depending on the severity, a strain or sprain can be a simple overstretch of the muscle or tendon, or it can result in a partial or complete tear.

Both strains and sprains are uncommon in younger children because their growth plates (areas of bone growth located in the ends of long bones) are weaker than muscles or tendons, instead, children are prone to fractures.

If you find yourself suffering from pain that you think might be a sprain or strain, read this article on what they are, how to treat them, when to seek medical attention, some myths, and last but certainly not least, prevention.

Muscle Strains

Muscle strain (muscle pull, muscle tear) – Refers to damage to a muscle or its attaching tendons.

  • This occurs from putting undue pressure on muscles during the course of normal activity.
  • Muscle damage can come in the form of tearing muscle fibers or tendons attached.
  • Tearing of the muscle can also damage blood vessels, causing local bleeding, and pain.
  • Sometimes referred to as a muscle pull

Two common strains 

  • Lower back
  • Hamstring

Contact sports put people at high risk for strains 

  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Boxing
  • Wrestling

Also common in overuse injuries 

  • Long-distance running
  • Swimming
  • Endurance sports

Common in sports that require extensive gripping

  • Gymnastics
  • Tennis
  • Rowing
  • Golf

Elbow strain is common in 

  • Racquet sports
  • Throwing
  • Contact sports

Strains can be mild, where you just feel a pull and some pain but there is no outward sign of injury. More severe strains could leave you very uncomfortable and depending on the level of trauma, it may bruise.

There are two types of strains; acute and chronic.

Acute Strain – occurs when a muscle becomes strained or pulled – or may even tear – when it stretches unusually far or abruptly.

  • Slipping on ice
  • Running jumping or throwing
  • Lifting a heavy object
  • Lifting in an awkward position

Chronic strain – results from prolonged, repetitive movement of a muscle. This may occur on the job or during sports:

  • Gymnastics
  • Tennis
  • Rowing
  • Golf

Muscle Sprain

Muscle Sprain – An injury to ligaments and/or joints that cause pain and swelling but not dislocation.

The severity of a muscle sprain will depend on the extent of the injury to a single ligament. Is it partial or complete? And the number of ligaments involved.

3 most common sprains 

  • Ankles
  • Knees
  • Wrists

Common causes

  • Ankle – walking or exercising on an uneven surface
  • Knee – pivoting during an athletic activity
  • Wrist – landing on an outstretched hand during a fall
  • Thumb – skiing injury or overextension when playing racquet sports


  • Swelling, bruising or redness
  • Pain at rest
  • Pain when the specific muscle or joint in relation to the muscle is used
  • The weakness of the muscle or tendons
  • Inability to use the muscle at all

Treating a sprain or strain

Rest will help most during the first stage of your injury, generally in the first five days after you sustain an injury the body is in repair mode and it is best to relax.

But don’t sit around for too long resting or too much inactivity once you’ve sustained a muscle strain can be harmful to your injury. Sitting around could cause your pesky sprain to stick around and become chronic. 

  • Stretch
    • Keep strained muscle in a stretched position
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    • Do not take with kidney disease or a history of gastrointestinal bleeding
    • Do not take if you are on blood thinners
    • Ask your doctor before taking
  • Acetaminophen is safer – will reduce pain but not swelling
  • PRICE – Protect, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation
    • Protect – muscle from further injury
    • Rest – avoid activity
    • Ice for about 20 minutes every hour while awake
    • Heat (when the swelling has lessened)
      • Early application of heat can increase swelling or pain

*Ice or heat should not be applied to bearskin, always use a towel or protective covering.

  • Compression applied gently with an elastic bandage, do not wrap tightly
  • Elevate to decrease swelling

You can’t simply count on the PRICE method, you must actively take part in your rehabilitation. Understanding your injury and rehab process will help you heal and possibly prevent further injury.

Once you’ve sufficiently rested, about a week after your injury, it is time to get mobile again! In this stage you can try:

  • Active stretching
    • Do not stretch too aggressively, think gentle motion.
  • Light tissue work, or manual therapy
    • It is better to keep the muscle loose as it heals, rather than trying to work out a large knot in the future.
  • Passive modalities
    • Ultrasound or TENs unit.

In this phase, you are minimalizing the amount of scar tissue, while keeping the scar tissue that has formed flexible.

Around 3-6 weeks after an injury you want to start re-strengthening the muscle. Exercises at this point will be injury specific

Around week 6 to week 10 you can start recovering with exercises that look more like normal strength and conditioning

Don’t succumb to the fear of re-injury, know that you might be uncomfortable, but you are going to get worse if you don’t keep using it. Slow controlled movements and great form can help save you from reinjury.

When to seek medical attention

  • Serious injury
  • No relief with home remedies within 24 hours
  • Audible popping sound with injury
  • Inability to walk
  • Significant swelling
  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Open cuts
  • The injured area looks crooked or lumpy (other than swelling)
  • Lack of movement to the injured joint
  • Numbness
  • Redness or red streaks spreading from the injury
  • It is a repeat injury
  • Pain swelling or redness in a bony part of your foot

Diagnostic procedures from your doctor

  • X-Rays: uses electromagnetic energy to produce images of internal tissue, bones, and organs.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
  • Computer Tomography Scan (CT or CAT Scan): Uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices) both horizontally and vertically of the body.

Muscle sprain and strain myths

  • Bracing can replace strengthening exercises: your lower leg muscles provide support to the injured ligaments, so strengthening is crucial.
  • Wearing a brace makes your ankle weaker: strength training plus a brace will improve your balance and prevent further injury.
  • Braces won’t fit in shoes: new unobtrusive braces are becoming more common

Preventing Sprains and Strains

Whether or not you have already suffered from a sprain or strain, you are going to want to prevent them in the future. Of course, staying healthy will keep you in the game longer, but sustaining a sprain or stain could have repercussions beyond your athletic endeavors.

Here are some tips on prevention:

  • Maintain a well-balanced diet to keep your muscles strong.
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Practice safety measures to prevent falls
    • Keep stairways, hallways, yards, and driveways free of clutter
    • Salt icy paths in winter
  • Wear shoes that fit properly
  • Don’t wear shoes with worn treads
  • Do stretching exercises daily
  • Be in proper physical condition to play a sport
  • Warm up and stretch before participating in any sports or exercise
  • Wear proper fitting protective equipment when playing
  • Avoid exercising or participating in sports when you are tired or in pain
  • Run on even surfaces
  • Avoid slippery surfaces

Video from the Mayo clinic:

If you find yourself suffering from a muscle sprain and strain, don’t get down. Most importantly don’t fight through the pain, you could seriously injure yourself. Stop what you are doing an assess the seriousness of your injury. Take time first to rest and decide if you need to seek medical treatment.

If you are not going to a doctor, be sure you are following the proper procedures to help you recover from the comfort of home. Proper recovery from sports injuries will help you get back to the level you were on before you sustained the injury. Don’t push it, don’t rush your recovery and don’t be afraid to get back out there!

To learn more about how chiropractic can help you recover you can read more here:

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