How Do I Tell If I Have a Sprain?

Strains and sprains can be some of the most common injuries, often occurring in sports participation or even in everyday activities. Whether you have a twisted ankle or a sore back, it might be time to talk to a doctor to determine the extent of the injury.


Sprains, Strains, and Tears… Oh My!


It is common for people to use the terms “strain” and “sprain” as synonyms, describing everything from a pulled hamstring to a wrist injury. The truth is that these injuries are not the same in the medical industry.


Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect the bones in the joint areas. When these ligaments are torn or over-stretched, it is known as a sprain. On the other hand, a strain is when the muscle tissue is torn or stretched. Sometimes strains are referred to as pulled muscles.


A doctor can diagnose the injury by discussing your medical history and examining the affected area. Sometimes, additional testing might be needed if the doctor is worried about other injuries, such as a broken bone or ruptured tissues. If additional testing is requested, then you might need an x-ray or an MRI.


How to Tell If You Have a Sprain


Evaluate the symptoms and injury to determine if you have a sprain:

  • How Did it Happen? The motion or incident that triggered the pain can indicate the type of injury you are dealing with. For example, if you twisted, fell, or experienced a hit that pushed the body out of the normal position, then it is likely a sprain. The movement puts pressure on the joint, which affects the ligaments. Strains are most common for athletes in contact sports or any activity that requires repetitive motions.
  • The Severity of Pain: The worse the injury, the more pain you will experience. Additionally, a severe injury will make it difficult to put pressure on the joint or to move the affected area. When the ligament or muscle is torn completely, it can feel like a broken bone because of the way it affects the movement and function of the limb. Pain isn’t always an indicator of the injury severity though, which is why you shouldn’t hesitate to talk to a doctor if you think you have an injury that needs to be treated.
  • Mobility and Function: When the joint is affected by severe swelling and significant pain, then you could also be experiencing joint instability. This moderate or severe injury will have an impact on your ability to walk or to put weight on the injury.


Treatment for Sprains and Strains


Treatment is similar for both strains and sprains. For minor injuries, treatment can be done at home without talking to a doctor. But don’t overlook the benefits that can come from additional treatment to ensure joint mobility and function in the future.


At-home treatment for sprains and strains might include:

  • Rest: Stay off the injury and avoid the use of that part of the body. If the leg, knee, or ankle is affected, then you might need to use crutches for a few days to promote healing. If the hands or wrists are affected, then try to avoid using that arm for a few days.
  • Elevation: While you are resting, prop the injured limb on a stack of pillows, or rest in a recliner. Try to keep the injured joint above the level of the heart. This treatment is beneficial to minimize swelling.
  • Compression: It can be helpful to apply compression to the injured area to reduce swelling. For example, elastic first-aid bandages can be wrapped around the injured area to help with immobilization. If you have a sling, brace, or splint from a previous injury, then you can use that tool again to stabilize the injury.
  • Ice: The application of ice is another way to minimize swelling. Additionally, the cold can help with pain management. Apply ice for 10 minutes, then take a break for 30 – 60 minutes before using the ice again. Ice slows down the inflammatory process by constricting blood vessels.
  • Medications: Certain over-the-counter medications can be used to bring down the swelling and manage the pain. Follow the recommended dosages for ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen. Be aware that reducing the pain can result in you feeling over-confident about the healing. So, be cautious to avoid too much activity when you are using medications. The pain is an indication from your body that you have an injury, which naturally reduces movement and use.


It is important to rest the injury for a while, but don’t wait too long to return to your normal routine because it could result in scar tissue that has a long-term effect on the function and mobility of the joint. Ease back into your activities, and be careful to avoid additional injuries. For example, if you have a sprained ankle, then try slow walks and gentle stretching before moving onto bigger exercises. If the pain flares, then it is a signal that you should back off on the rehabilitation. Work with a doctor to determine the right course of action to promote healing.


Professional Treatment Options


When the injury is moderate to severe, or you’ve experienced repeated injuries over the years, then you might consult with a rehabilitation doctor to evaluate treatment options. A few treatments might be recommended:

  • Physical Therapy: There are times when physical therapy can be helpful in strengthening the muscles and improve both flexibility and function. You might meet with a physical therapist a few times, then have exercises to do at home during recovery.
  • Cast: Even if the bone isn’t fractured, there are times when a cast is recommended to allow the joint to heal. For example, you might need to wear an ankle cast or a removable boot during the recovery time.
  • Surgery: Surgical techniques can be done to minimize old scar tissue or repair the damaged tissue. Advances in modern technology have made it possible to complete some of these treatments using a scope, to minimize the incisions that are needed in surgery.


With proper treatment, most people return to full health within 3 to 8 weeks. But there are times when several months of recovery are necessary after severe injuries.


When to See a Doctor for a Sprain


How do you know when it is time to visit with a doctor about your injury? If you’ve tried at-home remedies and things don’t seem to be getting better, then it might be time to come into our urgent care for a consultation. Here are a few signs that you need to visit with a doctor right away:

  • Intense, sudden pain after an injury
  • The pain and swelling don’t let up after two or three days
  • You can’t place weight on the injury
  • The symptoms get worse with time


A mild injury will usually get better on its own within 7 to 10 days. If it’s a severe sprain, then it can take several weeks, and it is best that recovery is completed under the supervision of a doctor.


If you need to consult with a doctor about an injury, we have a board-certified medical staff ready to help with your medical concerns. Our clinic offers both urgent care services and emergency treatments in the same office. Walk-ins are welcome, or you can call us at iCare ER and Urgent Care to schedule an urgent care appointment: (214) 407-8668.