You were just walking on the golf course! Just walking! You didn’t see that big acorn on the ground. All you know is that you stepped on it, your foot rolled in and you went down, hard. Now your ankle hurts – a lot. You can see it swelling up in front of your eyes and you wonder if you should have left your shoe on.
Guess what? You probably just sprained your ankle and it is going to take a while to heal. We’ve all heard of sprains and strains. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about the difference between them and how to heal from them. It’s going to take time and patience, but you should be able to return to the golf course or basketball court before too long.
Sprains and strains are both considered “soft tissue injuries”, as opposed to fractures, which is the breaking of a bone. However, don’t think “Oh, it is just a sprain!” Soft tissue injuries can be just as painful and take as long to heal as bony fractures.
What are these soft tissues we’re talking about?
- Muscles cross over a joint, allowing movement. When a muscle contracts, it shortens and causes the joint to flex, extend, rotate or perform any of its miraculous movements, depending on the muscle’s points of origin and insertion. There are several types of muscle, depending on its location and purpose. The muscles that allow movement of the body are called skeletal, or voluntary, muscles.
- Tendons join skeletal muscle to bone. The tendons at each end of a muscle firmly attach muscle to bone. It is the shortening of the muscle that causes movement from turning of the head to leaping tall buildings.
- Ligaments join bone to bone. You have probably heard of the ACL, or anterior (front) cruciate (crossing) ligament of the knee. This structure joins the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone). Its partner is the PCL, or posterior (rear) cruciate ligament. The two of them, ACL and PCL, are two of the many tendons, ligaments and muscles that hold the knee together.
- Cartilage is the durable, flexible material that serves as a cushion between bones, as well as providing structure to the nose and ears.
Injury to any of these tissues is considered a soft tissue injury. Let’s look at three types of common sports injuries involving soft tissues.
- Sprain – A sprained joint, be it finger, neck or knee, is caused by a stretched or torn ligament. Sprains can be caused by twisting, falling or direct trauma to the joint.
- Strain – A strain is an injured muscle or tendon. Like sprains, strains can be caused by twisting, falling or direct trauma. Sprains and strains also show similar symptoms like pain, swelling, bruising and loss of function of the joint.
- Contusion – A contusion is a deep muscle bruise caused by direct or repeated blows to an area. A severe contusion can demonstrate similar symptoms of sprains and strains, with pain, swelling, discoloration and loss of function.
Normal treatment is to follow the R.I.C.E. Protocol in the hours and days immediately following the injury.
- Rest – use the area as little as possible.
- Ice – apply a covered ice pack to the area for twenty minutes at a time.
- Compression – applying firm, gentle compression to the area will slow swelling. Depending on the area, this may be accomplished with a simple ace bandage, but take care not to apply too much pressure, as you may cut off the blood supply past the dressing.
- Elevation – raising the injured part above the level of the heart uses gravity to decrease swelling.
As your symptoms slowly resolve, your healthcare provider may prescribe a brace or support for you. Here at Mueller Sports Medicine, we’ve been designing and building the orthopedic devices that top orthopedists prescribe. To find out how we can help you get back to what you love doing, please contact us.