Never put a foot wrong again with our expert advice

Sprains and strains can be pretty painful and can stop you from doing the day-to-day things you’re used to. Although they sound the same, there are some differences between the two so let’s break it down. We’re talking causes, treatments and steps you can take to help avoid future injuries. Notebooks at the ready!

What are sprains?

A joint sprain is the tearing or overstretching of a ligament – the tissue that connects two bones in a joint.

What are strains?

A joint strain is the tearing or overstretching of a muscle or tendon – the tissue which connects bones to muscles.

Symptoms of sprains & strains

The symptoms of both are similar, so it’s often difficult to work out if you’ve got a sprain or a strain without seeing your GP first. They can occur around your ankle, back, leg, knee, thumb, foot or wrist – what a list! Here are some symptoms to look out for:

• Pain around the affected area

• Muscle spasms or cramping

• Swelling or bruising

• Difficulty moving the joint

What causes sprains & strains?

We’re glad you asked! Our bodies work hard every day to keep us moving and feeling on top form, so the odd sprain or strain isn’t unusual.

Sprains can happen when something forces your joint out of position, things like falling or twisting an ankle – we’ve all been there, right?

Strains are slightly different and can happen quickly or develop over some time. Things like lifting heavy objects the wrong way or overstressing a muscle during a workout can cause one.

How to help treat sprains & strains

Now we’ve cleared up the cause of sprains and strains, let’s talk about how you can treat them. The good news is the majority can be treated at home – result! Following four simple steps – rest, ice, compress and elevate (RICE) – can help you recover quickly from your injury.

• Rest your injury and try not to put any weight on it

• Ice for up to 20 minutes, three times a day, using an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel

• Compress your injury by wrapping a bandage around it for support

• Elevate the affected area, and keep it raised as long and often as you can

Avoiding heat therapy (hot water bottles or heat patches) for the first few days can help prevent swelling. As your injury starts to improve and the pain disappears, do some gentle exercise so your joint or muscle doesn’t become stiff. A potter around the garden or some easy stretches will do just the job – we’ll see you outside.

Having painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen* handy should you need to take them can help ease any discomfort. Ibuprofen can also help reduce any swelling but shouldn’t be taken in the first 48 hours following your injury as it could slow down the healing process. Remember, you can also chat to a pharmacist about different treatment options for your sprain or strain – they might recommend gels, patches, sprays or foams that are applied directly to your injury. 

How long will it take for my sprain or strain to heal?

As the saying goes, everybody is different. Most sprains and strains will start to feel better after about two weeks, but more severe injuries could take months to heal. Pressing pause on strenuous exercises like running or high-intensity training is recommended for up to eight weeks to avoid further damage.

How can I prevent sprains & strains from happening?

As much as we’d love to predict the future, it’s not always possible to tell when a sprain or strain is going to happen. But there are things you can do to help avoid them.

Preparation is key. If you’re exercising regularly, especially if you're running 5k, it’s super important to warm up and stretch before you hit the road. If you’re playing high-contact sports like rugby or hockey, don’t forget to wear protective equipment, too.

Wearing shoes that fit your feet properly and making sure your shoes don’t have a broken or worn down heel can help you avoid slipping or tripping.

When to get help

If you’ve already treated your injury at home and it’s not feeling better, or the pain and swelling are getting worse, you should have a chat with your GP. If you feel hot and cold and have a very high temperature with your injury, it could be an infection. If this is the case, you should call the NHS 111 number – they’ll be able to help.

Consider your lesson on sprains and strains complete – don’t worry, we won’t test you.

*Always read the label and check the medicine is suitable for you before taking.