Strains and Sprains

When you strain a muscle (commonly called a pulled muscle), you over-stretch or tear the tendon. A sprain refers to a torn or overstretched ligament. One of your coworkers may hobble into the office announcing he has “strained” a muscle — or maybe he says he has “pulled” a muscle. These terms are interchangeable, but they’re not synonymous with “sprain.”

  • Straining a muscle or tendon (the tough, cord-like end of the muscle that attaches to the bone) happens when you push yourself harder than normal, like when you challenge your kid brother to a 100-yard dash.

  • Spraining a ligament (the connective tissue that joins two bones together) is like when you turn your ankle while stepping off a curb. You can sprain a joint (an ankle in this example), but you can’t sprain a muscle.

Strains

Two of the most commonly strained muscles are the hamstrings (rear thigh muscles) and groin (inner-thigh) muscles. These muscles often pull because they’re tight and because most people don’t take five minutes to warm up before working out.

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You know you’ve strained your hamstring if a sharp pain shoots up the back of your thigh when you straighten your leg. You have a groin pull if a stabbing pain prevents you from lifting your leg in toward your other leg or out to the side. In both cases, you may feel a lump or a knot where the muscle has tightened up. Stop the offending activity for a few days until the muscle repairs itself. Otherwise, you may be headed for a full-blown tear, in which case you could be sidelined for several months instead of being laid up for a few days. Light stretching may be beneficial.

To speed up the healing process for a strain, apply ice to the injured area for the first 24 to 48 hours. Gentle — emphasis on gentle — massage may help work out muscle kinks. To prevent future pulls, carefully stretch your muscles every day, always after a thorough warm-up, and increase your exercise program on a gradual basis.

Check your shoes. Athletic shoes with flared heels — heels that are wider on the bottom than on the top — may restrain your foot and ankle from normal movement. That, in turn, may cause your thigh muscles to tighten up. Shoes that are too big cause the same type of problem.

Sprains

Sprains occur most commonly at the ankle. If you sprain your ankle badly, you may hear a loud pop or tearing sound when the injury happens. Usually you’re left with a bruise and swelling, and you can’t place any of your weight on the injured foot without pain. The treatment for a sprain is to keep your shoe on for as long as possible (this keeps the ankle from swelling), and then following the RICE formula — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

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