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Sprain or strain: how to manage sports injuries

Sprain or strain: how to manage sports injuries

Sports injuries, which crop up when you least expect them, strike whether you are an Olympic athlete, a gym enthusiast or a weekend warrior

There is nothing worse than dealing with a nagging sports injury. Sportspersons are classified based on their level of activity – competitive, active, recreational or occasional. They can all suffer from sports injuries, with varying degrees of pain. From sprains, strains, contusions, partial or complete ligament tears, fractures or broken bones, the injuries are many. A sprain is a soft tissue injury of a joint. It is also called a pulled ligament. A strain is a pulled muscle, without a tear while a contusion is a direct injury to any part of the body. All three are treated with rest, ice packs, an elastic brace, a hinged brace for the knee and a sling for upper extremity injuries.

Sprain or strain? How to manage your sports injuries
Muscle strains and joint sprains are the most common sports injuries

Ligament, meniscus and labrum tears

A ligament is the strong supporting connective tissue present around a joint. Ligament tears are common in active sportspersons and surprisingly in occasional athletes as well. If someone is not fit or conditioned for a specific activity, there are chances of incurring a ligament injury.

Capsular and collateral ligaments of the knee and elbow that are present external to the knee and elbow heal without surgery. Rest, physiotherapy, crutches, braces, slings, etc are used in the recovery process.

“If a ligament is inside a joint – like the anterior cruciate ligament [ACL] and posterior cruciate ligament [PCL] in the knee tears [ACL tear and PCL tear], then healing on its own gets tricky. Without an external source of blood supply, if torn, the body does not have the ability to heal or join these ligaments, and usually needs arthroscopic or keyhole surgery,” explains Dr Thomas Chandy, director of orthopedics and sports medicine, Hosmat Hospitals, Bengaluru.

“Another common sports injury of the knee and shoulder is the injury to the cushion cartilage, called meniscus in the knee and labrum in the shoulder,” adds Dr Chandy. “These don’t have a blood supply [like your fingernails] and can give trouble for years. These need arthroscopic [keyhole] repair. Finally, conditioning is important to prevent injuries. It simply means being fit. Gradually train your body with regular physical exercise, maybe gym, jogging, stationary bike, treadmill etc.”


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How to treat strain and sprain

Strains can get tricky to heal too, depending on the muscle involved. There is one nasty muscle pull, called the hamstring strain. Though this doesn’t need surgery, it takes months to heal.

The guiding principles of treatment and prevention of these types of injuries (be it sprain or strain) remain the same, says Brijesh Singh, a personal trainer at the Bengaluru-based Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence (CSE).

“Any physical activity involves a risk of injury,” explains Singh. “Professional sportspersons have been using protective equipment for a long time to reduce this risk and with increased awareness of the importance of exercise and appeal of competitive sporting activities, even amateurs are using high-grade protective equipment like padded or reinforced clothing, sports shoes specially designed for runners and cyclists that minimise overuse of feet and ankle joints. However, using protective equipment does not guarantee safety. Some sports problems are the result of a sudden mishap that results in obvious, immediate symptoms. Others develop more gradually, showing subtle signs over time, but it is very dangerous to ignore an injury while performing a high-impact activity and assume it will simply disappear on its own.”

Preventing sprains

Lakshmi Prasad, a Bengaluru-based ortho-physiotherapist working at Nikad Ortho Centre, explains that there are many possible causes of sports injuries, including inadequate warm-up and cooling off, training procedure, poor overall health, over competitiveness and normal sporting hazards such as falls, equipment malfunctioning etc.

“When dealing with common sports injuries it is important that the therapists bear in mind that the athlete has to overcome two challenges,” says Dr Prasad. “The damaged muscle and tissue must first heal, and then the musculotendinous complex (both muscles and tendons) must be reconditioned. The different treatments depending upon the nature of the injury, include stretching, range of motion, gait training, iontophoresis, electrical stimulation, shockwave therapy and amnio therapy. Post treatment, it is essential to focus on sport-specific muscle strengthening exercises.”

Dr Chandy recommends that to prevent sports injuries one should always be aware of one’s physical limits and avoid exceeding them.

“A good fitness plan should include strength training and flexibility and while exercising some muscle groups should not be ignored [even] if they are not directly related to the sport you are playing,” says Dr Chandy. “Using the right playing technique is very important as well as warm-up and cool-down. Drink plenty of water so you avoid dehydration, rest when you are tired, do not ignore any pain that occurs while playing and avoid being a short-term hero as it may lead to a serious sports injury requiring major treatment protocols later.”


  • Muscle strains and joint sprains are the most common sports injuries seen.
  • Ligament tears can be treated with rest, ice and using braces or support. However, ACL tear, PCL rupture, meniscus and labrum tear would require arthroscopic surgery.
  • Conditioning of the muscles and joints and maintaining sport or activity-specific fitness is important to avoid sports injuries.

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