Sprains and strains sound a lot alike—here's how to tell them apart.

By Kendall Wenaas
A bag of frozen peas (or an ice pack) can provide relief for your sprain or strain.

What Is a Sprain?

Sprains and strains sound a lot alike, and they look a lot alike too—you’ll have pain, swelling and soreness. Sprains happen when a ligament is stretched or torn, and tend to happen suddenly (think slide tackles in soccer). A mild sprain can heal after a few weeks, but a severe sprain may take a year.

What is a Strain?

A strain is an overstressed or torn muscle or tendon. They are more apt to happen over time—like when carrying heavy boxes into a dorm room all day leads to back spasms.

Prevent Sports-Related Sprains and Strains

Despite how competitive game day can get, 62% of sports-related injuries happen at practice. Whether your teen plays on a court or on a field, on feet or on wheels, here’s how to prevent sprains and strains.

  • Variety. Kids start specializing in sports very young (seriously, your kid is 15...and has been playing competitive soccer for more than a decade!). As such, “I see a lot of repetitive overuse burnout and injury,” says Cordelia Carter, MD, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. “Try to use your body in different ways and work on different muscles for overall balance.”
  • Rest. “If your teen works out every day, doesn’t take breaks between sports seasons or plays multiple sports in a season, they’re putting themselves at higher risk for injury,” Carter says. If your kid won’t take a season off, encourage two rest days per week.
  • Sleep. “Research suggests that you’re more likely to have a sports injury if you don’t get enough sleep,” Carter says.

Stock These Supplies

When your daughter twists her ankle, you’ll want these basics handy.

  • Keep an ice pack (or bag of peas) in your freezer, so you can ice an injury ASAP.
  • Use ibuprofen to bring down swelling or acetaminophen to relieve pain.
  • Try a menthol gel, like Biofreeze, to provide some cooling relief at the site of the injury, or use an arnica cream, like Boiron’s Arnicare Gel, which may help ease soreness and swelling. Even better: The Feel Good Lab’s Natural Pain Cream contains both.
  • In case your daughter’s ankle is still bothering her slightly before her next game, keep a Mueller Sports Medicine brace or support handy. (But if she’s relying on one to walk, she’s not ready to go back to her sport.)

Should You See a Doctor for Your Sprain or Strain?

Both strains and sprains can be serious—so don’t just “walk it off,” as the saying goes. “If pain doesn’t go away in a day or two, see a doctor,” says Ann Sudoh, MD, orthopedics and sports medicine specialist at Essentia Health in Duluth, MN. Seek medical care if your pain is getting worse or if:

  • You’re experiencing numbness or tingling.
  • You’re limping.  Pain is interfering with your daily life or sleep.
  • You have a fever or chills, which could be a sign of infection.

Should You See a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapy can be expensive, but Carter says it’s worth it: “If you don’t retrain the muscles to work in concert after a bad injury, it can lead to more injuries in the future.” A physical therapist can give you exercises to do on your own, making even one appointment beneficial.

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