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Injuries - sprains, strains and overuse injuries

If you participate in sport or other physically challenging activities, you might be among the many New Zealanders who are injured each year during sports or recreational activities. Sprains and strains are common injuries to soft tissues.

Depending on the severity, most soft tissue injuries take several weeks to heal. Always see your healthcare professional if the pain is severe or getting worse, or you have difficulty moving the injured area.

Strains

A strain is an injury to the muscles or the tendons that connect muscle to bone. Strains occur when the muscle is overstretched. Normally, muscle tissue is quite stretchy to accommodate normal movement. A sudden stretch or wrench can stretch the muscle cells too far, causing the muscle to tear and bleed.

Any muscle can be strained, but strains are common in the calf, groin (inside of thigh) and hamstring (back of thigh).

Sprains

A sprain is an injury to a joint. Joints are held together with tough connective tissue called ligaments and a fibrous capsule surrounding the joint, the joint capsule. These provide support for the joint while allowing movement. An injury to the ligaments or joint capsule can result in a sprain.

Sprains occur when the joint is wrenched or twisted beyond its usual range of motion and small tears of the ligament or joint capsule develop.

Joints that are naturally mobile are particularly prone to sprains. Common areas affected include the thumb, ankle and wrist.

Overuse injuries

Unlike sprains or strains which can occur with a single, traumatic event, overuse injuries develop over time, after repetitive use of muscles or joints. Overuse injuries are not restricted to athletes, but can occur in anyone who performs the same movements for long periods, such as using a computer keyboard.

Common examples include tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis), runner’s knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome) and Achilles tendon problems.

In strains and sprains, there may be sudden sensation of 'giving way' at the time of the injury. The pain with overuse injuries typically increases gradually over time. Other symptoms include:

  • Pain, tenderness, or swelling
  • Stiffness or reduced movement of the injured area
  • Reduced strength of the injured area

Sprains and strains may happen when the muscle or joint is worked too hard (for example, if you exercise too hard for your level of fitness or you don't "warm up" before exercise). Excessive force, such as a fall or landing awkwardly may put excessive force on joints and muscles, and cause damage.

Overuse injuries are more likely to occur when a repetitive motion is combined with poor technique or not allowing enough time for recovery following exercise. Untreated, an overuse injury gradually worsens over time. Resolution of overuse injuries usually requires a combination of modifying the movement and strengthening the injured area.

To minimise the effect of an injury, to help get you moving again sooner, follow RICE first aid as soon as possible:

  • Rest and avoid activities that cause you pain
  • Ice the injured area for 20 minutes every 2 hours
  • Compress the injured area with an elastic bandage
  • Elevate the injured area above the level of your heart while resting

In addition to using RICE first aid to treat your injury, to avoid making the inflammation worse, avoid HARM:

  • Heat
  • Alcohol
  • Re-injury
  • Massage

Once the swelling has reduced and the injury has started to heal, very gentle stretching will help keep the muscle or joint mobile. Anti-inflammatories or painkillers are helpful to relieve discomfort as your body heals.

When the injured area is completely healed, exercises to strengthen and promote flexibility in the area can be started. Consult your healthcare professional for specific recommendations.

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