A sprain is a stretch or tear in a ligament. Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones to bones at joints.
A strain is also a stretch or tear, but it happens in a muscle or a tendon. Tendons link muscles to the bones.
First aid for muscle strains
Most muscle strains can be successfully treated at home. According to the Mayo Clinic, minor muscle strains can be treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE).
Avoid using your muscle for a few days, especially if movement causes an increase in pain. But too much rest can cause muscles to become weak. This can prolong the healing process. After two days, slowly begin using the affected muscle group, taking care not to overdo it.
Apply ice immediately after injuring your muscle. This will minimize swelling. Don’t put ice directly on your skin. Use an ice pack or wrap ice in a towel. Keep the ice on your muscle for about 20 minutes. Repeat every hour on the first day. For the next several days, apply ice every four hours.
To reduce swelling, wrap the affected area with an elastic bandage until swelling comes down. Be careful not to wrap the area too tightly. Doing so can reduce your blood circulation.
Whenever possible, keep the injured muscle raised above the level of your heart.
Other self-care methods include the following:
- Use an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil). This will help keep pain and swelling down. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also help with pain.
- After three days, apply heat to the muscle several times a day. This will help bring blood circulation to the area for healing.
- Don’t rest your muscle for too long. This can cause stiffness and weakness. Begin light stretching as soon as possible. Slowly increase your level of activity.
- Make sure to stretch and warm up before exercising when you return to normal activity. This will help increase blood flow to your muscles and decrease your risk of injury.
- Make an effort to stay in shape. You’re less likely to develop a strain if your muscles are strong and healthy.
- If your muscle strain is severe, you may need medical attention. Physical therapy may also be recommended.