When you hear the word sprain, like most people you may think of a painful ankle injury with a lot of swelling. However there’s a lot more to sprains than just a rolled ankle. In fact, sprains can occur in almost any joint, they take a long time to heal and are often not well understood by many people who have experienced one. Here are some important things to know about them:
1. A sprain is a kind of injury in which overstretching or tearing of ligaments has occurred. Your ligaments are bands of connective tissue that hold bones to other bones. Ligaments are fibrous and strong, but because of their function of holding bones in place, they’re not very stretchy or flexible. This means that once a ligament has been sprained—stretched beyond its functional capacity—it can take a long time for it to go back to its original function. It’s a little like a rubber band that’s been stretched and stays that way. This is why it takes so long for sprains to heal—ligaments just aren’t meant to be stretched. In addition, if the sprain is severe enough and the ligament is torn, it may require surgery to repair the damage and restore function.
2. You may have heard the term “sprain or strain” in describing an injury. When a muscle or a tendon is overstretched, it’s considered to be a strain. A tendon is a kind of connective tissue that attaches muscles to bones, in contrast to a ligament that holds bone to bone. Simply put, overstretching a muscle or tendon is a strain; overstretching a ligament is a sprain.
3. If you’ve ever experienced a sprain, it’s likely that you remember the moment it happened and that you knew you injured yourself. In fact, some people report hearing a noise like a crack or a pop in the joint at the time of their injury. Sprains are acute and memorable because in most cases they’re intensely painful. They often cause swelling bruising and the inability to move or use the injured joint.
4. The most common site for a sprain is your ankle. You can sprain your ankle from walking or hiking on an uneven surface, rolling it during side-to-side movements (such as in playing tennis), or from landing wrong when jumping. In addition, people who have a gait in which their foot rolls outward toward the side are more likely to experience a sprained ankle. While ankle sprains are most common, you can sprain other joints, such as your knee from pivoting or landing wrong, your wrist when bracing for a fall and your thumb while holding a ski pole or playing racquet sports.
5. Many people will describe their sprain as happening out of the blue, which is often the case. However, there are a couple of factors that can increase your chances of sustaining a sprain. These include:
- Hiking or walking on uneven or slippery ground.
- Continuing to work out on tired muscles, because tired muscles don’t support your body very well. A good example of the muscle fatigue/injury relationship is on the ski slopes. It’s well-known that most skiing and snowboarding injuries occur late in the day.
- Using the wrong equipment or footwear unsuitable for your activity.
- A prior sprain—it increases chances of spraining the same joint again.
6. The severity of sprains are described in degrees. A first degree sprain is relatively mild, in which tissue damage is minor and recovery takes a week or two. A second degree sprain involves damage to one or more of the ligaments in the joint, and is associated with more pain, bruising and swelling. A second degree sprain takes longer to heal; from two week to two or more months. A third degree sprain is the most severe, in that one or more ligaments are completely torn. It’s associated with a great deal of pain, swelling, bruising and the inability to bear weight. A third degree sprain needs to be seen by your doctor to rule out a fracture, and the joint is often immobilized with a cast or a brace. In some cases, the ligament needs to be repaired surgically.
7. While most sprains heal completely, many people who have experienced a sprain report chronic problems with pain, arthritis and instability or weakness of the joint.
8. Treatment for sprains vary by severity, however most require rest, ice, elevation and compression with an ace bandage to keep the swelling under control.
9. Acupuncture can play an important role in the healing of sprains by providing pain relief, reducing inflammation and increasing circulation to the area to support healing. In addition to pain reduction, some research studies have found that acupuncture can decrease recovery time and improve functionality and quality of life after a sprain.
Sprains are a painful and frustrating injury. It’s often said that coming back from a broken bone is easier than healing from a sprain because sprains take longer to heal. The good news is that acupuncture has a lot to offer people recovering from a sprain and can also help people who have chronic problems from an older sprain. To find out more about how acupuncture can help you heal from a sprain, contact our clinic.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.