Strains and Sprains

Twist and shout on the dance floor not the trail

Exhilarating as they are, outdoor adventures strain the body in ways that controlled gym workouts don't. Pulling yourself up steep slopes, maneuvering through narrow caves or tramping uneven paths can twist, torque and torture your muscles and joints. While it's tempting to push yourself when testing your outdoor limits, too much physical exertion can leave you regretting that extra drive. Both strains and sprains result from overstretching or moving beyond your body's range of motion. The distinction between these two exertion injuries relates to the type of tissue involved:

  • Sprain: This ligament injury usually occurs when a joint is moved beyond its normal range of motion. Ankles, wrists and knees are most vulnerable to sprains.
  • Strain: Similar to a sprain, this injury occurs when a muscle is overstretched. Sometimes called a pulled muscle, the most common strains are hamstring and back injuries.


Stiff joints and weak muscles are prone to injury, so being in good shape is your best protection. Previous injuries can also make joints and muscles more susceptible, so reinforce vulnerable areas when possible. Be sure to

  • Wear proper footwear.
  • Brace or wrap vulnerable areas.
  • Warm up and stretch before heading out.
  • Don't push yourself if tired or in pain.

Signs and Symptoms

Many people claim to hear a "pop" or feel a tear when they injure themselves, but even without these blatant signals, your body is a great communicator - the greater the pain and swelling, the more serious the injury. Symptoms range with severity but include

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Instability
  • Inability to move or use the joint (sprain)
  • Stiffness (strain).


Strains and sprains are treated in a similar manner. You might want to take some over-the-counter medication, but mild or moderate sprains or strains both respond well to the RICE method.

  • R = Rest: Rest and protect the injured area from further harm.
  • I = Ice: Apply an ice pack immediately to reduce swelling. Do this three to five times a day. To avoid frostbite, put a towel between the ice and skin and don't ice for longer than 20 minutes at a stretch.
  • C = Compression: Wrap the injured area with an elastic bandage to reduce swelling. You've wrapped the bandage too tightly if the area becomes numb, tingles, feels cool, hurts more or swells below the bandage. Hiking boots and splints can also provide compression.
  • E = Elevation: Elevate the injured area on pillows anytime you are sitting or lying down. This is an ideal time to apply ice. Try to keep the injured area at or above your heart to help minimize swelling.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Severe sprains or sprains can require surgery. Use the RICE method as first aid and see a doctor immediately if you have the following symptoms:

  • Severe pain
  • Numbness in the injured area
  • Redness or red streaks radiating from the injury
  • A re-injured joint or muscle
  • Inability to bear weight on the injury
  • Inability to move the joint
  • Inability to walk more than four steps without severe pain
  • A suspected broken bone.
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