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What is a Strain Injury?

man with back pain

Common orthopedic injuries include sprains and strains. While these terms are used interchangeably, they are both very different types of injuries.

What is a Strain?

A strain is an injury to a tendon or muscle. Tendons are tissues that connect your muscles to your bones. A strain can range from overstretching the tendon or muscle, or can be a partial or complete tear.

How Are Strains & Sprains Different?

While strains and sprains may have similar symptoms, they affect different body parts. A strain involves tendons or muscles, whereas a sprain is an injury to your ligament. Ligaments are fibrous, thick tissues that connect your bones to other bones in your body. Sprains to the ligament are when these tissues are stretched or torn.

Muscle strains are graded 1, 2, or 3 and are determined by the severity of the injury:

Grade 1 (mild strain): The muscle or tendon is overstretched, and there may or may not be small tears. Pain is mild and swelling may be present.

Grade 2 (moderate strain): The muscle or its tendon is overstretched with some of the fibers torn, but it is not a complete tear. Moderate pain with swelling occurs accompanied by tenderness in the affected area. Bruising and limited movement may also be present.

Grade 3 (severe strain): Most of the muscle fibers are torn, or it is a complete tear. Pain, bruising, tenderness, and swelling are usually present. Movement is difficult.

What Causes a Strain?

Strains may occur when you put excessive pressure on the muscles while you’re going about normal daily or work activities, such as lifting or playing sports. Also, if you are overweight, you are at a higher risk for strains.

Which Areas Could Be Affected by a Strain?

Common areas for strains include:

  • Back
  • Legs: (quadriceps and hamstrings), calf muscle
  • Elbow:

Tennis Elbow: Pain on the outer elbow which may radiate towards the wrist.

Golfer’s Elbow: Pain on the inner elbow that increases when you try to lift something. Pain may radiate towards the wrist.

How Are Strains Treated?

Strains may be treated at home following the RICE method:

Rest: Stay off your feet or avoid any physical activities that would put any weight on the affected area.
Ice: Apply ice to the affected area every 2 to 3 hours for about 20 minutes each time.
Compression: Reduce swelling by wrapping the affected area with a stretchy bandage.
Elevation: Raise the injured area above chest level if possible.

It's time to see your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Pain and swelling don't improve with RICE
  • Pain and swelling keep getting worse
  • You have difficulty walking or standing
  • Experience tingling or numbness in the affected area
  • Limited movement/flexibility in or around the affected area
  • You get a fever or chills
  • The affected area looks misshapen.
  • The injury results in an instability of the extremity or joint

What Are the Diagnostic Procedures for Strains?

Your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine if you have a strain and how to treat it. The physical exam will help your doctor determine if the strain is a partial or complete tear. If the injury is severe, like a complete tear, he or she may recommend surgery.

Can Strains Be Prevented?

To reduce or prevent your risk of a strain, you can:

  • Do exercises that improve your balance
  • Warm up before any exercise or sports activities
  • Don't exercise or play sports when you're in pain
  • Wear shoes with a proper fit
  • Replace your athletic shoes when there is wear on the tread or on one side of the heel
  • Wear protective equipment during sports
  • Avoid walking or running on uneven surfaces

If you suspect you have a strain injury and are looking for treatment options, make an appointment today with one of our NY Orthopedics locations in New York City. Our “Centers of Excellence” offer top-level orthopedic treatment for any concerns all in one location.

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