How to Heal: Sprains, Strains & other soft tissue injuries

Published: July 8, 2020 by Family Practice Staff Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general advice only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or health professional regarding any injuries or medical concerns.

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Sprains and Strains

What’s the difference and how do you heal them?

Sprains and strains are common soft tissue injuries which can affect joints and movement. Both injuries involve the overstretching or tearing of body tissue. But what’s the difference between a sprain and a strain? And how should you treat them? The difference between sprains and strains is the type of soft tissue injured.

A sprain occurs when a ligament (the soft tissue connecting the bones at a joint) is stretched or torn. A strain occurs when the muscles or tendons connecting the muscles to bone is stretched or torn.
Signs and symptoms: How do you know something is sprained or strained?

Both sprains and strains can occur in similar ways when the muscles, tendons or ligaments are pulled or twisted. Common causes are:

  1. trauma (from a fall, blow to the body or other accident)
  2. overuse (from repetitive motions or training) or
  3. poor body mechanics (such as improper lifting or applying excessive stress to joints and muscles).

The severity of a sprain or strain will depend on the cause, and can range from a mild overstretch injury to a more severe partial and complete tear injury. In both cases you may experience:

  • pain or tenderness
  • bruising
  • swelling
  • restricted motion
  • weakness or joint instability

How long a soft tissue injury takes to heal will vary based on the cause and severity. Minor injuries may take a couple of days to heal, while serious soft tissue injuries can require rehabilitation and surgery.

Treatment: When should you see your GP about a soft tissue injury?

For minor sprains and strains the RICE treatment (Rest, ice, compression, elevation) should help alleviate symptoms at home. Anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen, can also reduce swelling if you are able to use this type of medication.

More moderate injuries may require more treatment. Your doctor may recommend ultrasound or MRI imaging to determine the extent of an injury. In severe cases surgery may be required to repair partial or complete tears. X-rays are generally only used when there is evidence of or a reasonable possibility that a fracture occurred.

If your symptoms worsen despite using the RICE treatment or you experience significant pain or a substantial reduction in motion/use you should consult your doctor or health professional. Your GP can provide personalised advice and treatment to help you manage a troubling injury. The information contained in this article is general advice only.
Learn more about the risk factors that may affect you, and possible prevention strategies in Sports Medicine Australia’s Soft Tissue Injuries fact sheet.