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Preventing sprains and strains

These exercise injuries are common, but you can reduce your risk.

You spend most of your days working or going to school. But when the weekend comes, or you have some free time, you like to spend it shooting hoops, playing some softball or going for a run.

That's great. Regular physical activity is good for your health—as long as you take precautions to make sure you don't hurt yourself.

Two of the most common—and preventable—types of athletic injuries are sprains and strains. It's not hard to twist an ankle or pull a muscle while running or jumping, especially if you aren't in good physical shape or you fail to warm up properly.

"To prevent injuries, common-sense things like staying in shape and warming up before you exercise make a big difference," says Douglas Lundy, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Sprains and strains

When you take part in sports and physical fitness activities, an awkward motion, such as a sudden twist or fall, can result in damage to your ligaments, tendons or muscles. Most of the time, these soft-tissue injuries are diagnosed as sprains or strains.

A sprain takes place when you stretch or tear a ligament—the tissue that connects one bone to another. Areas vulnerable to injury are the ankles, knees and wrists.

You can sprain an ankle by turning your foot too far inward. Knee sprains often take place when you suddenly twist your knee, while wrist sprains are usually the result of falling on an outstretched hand.

A strain occurs when you injure a tendon—which connects muscle to bone—or a muscle. Strains usually take place in your foot or leg. But you can also strain your back, shoulder or elbow.

Strains can be a simple stretch or overextension of a muscle or tendon, such as a hamstring. Or they can be more serious, such as a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Most mild sprains and strains can be treated with RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation). But if you're not better after three weeks, you should see a doctor.

Injury prevention

While sprains and strains are common athletic injuries, there are steps you can take to lower your risk. Before you take up a new activity, or return to an old one, talk to your doctor about what you can do to prevent injuries.

In general, the best thing you can do is keep yourself in good physical condition. To prevent sprains and strains, Dr. Lundy says you should also:

  • Warm up and stretch before any type of physical activity.
  • Stretch even on days you aren't working out.
  • Make sure you have the proper equipment and shoes for your activity.
  • Stop any activity at the first sign of pain.

It's also a good idea not to overdo it.

"Stay within your limits. Don't try to be an Olympic skier if you haven't skied very much," Dr. Lundy says.

By taking precautions and proper care of your body, you can still participate in the activities you enjoy without getting hurt.

reviewed 12/12/2019

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