Sprains and Strains

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Quick GuideCare and Pain Relief for Bumps, Bruises, Sprains, and Strains

Care and Pain Relief for Bumps, Bruises, Sprains, and Strains

What is the recovery time for sprains and strains?

The goal of treatment after a sprain or strain is to return the patient to their previous level of function before the injury. The duration of recovery depends upon the extent of injury and what part of the body is damaged. The most important therapy for all injuries is allowing time to recover and heal. Rehabilitating an injury may involve a home exercise program or it may be a formal physical therapy program. Regardless, it takes time and effort to repair the body and the patient should have a clear understanding of what is expected to rehabilitate the injury. Some questions that may be helpful include the following:

  • Are there work or activity restrictions or limitations that need to be observed?
  • When can I expect to be able to return to normal daily activities?
  • When can I expect to be fully recovered?
  • Do I need to be reevaluated, and if so, when?

While it may take weeks for a sprain or strain to be completely healed, the time to return to activity may be much shorter. Many minor muscle strains resolve themselves in a few days. While the injured person can return to full activity relatively quickly, the muscle may not be completely healed and is less able to withstand excessive stress and may still be more prone to future recurrent injury. Similarly, sprained joints may be functional in a couple of weeks but might take months to heal completely and return to full strength and stability.

Special situations

Some muscle strains take longer to heal than others due to their location and function.

Chest wall muscle strains

The muscles that help us to breathe operate much like a bellows. The chest wall expands to suck air into the lungs. When injuries occur to the muscles of the chest wall, healing time may be measured in weeks, not days. The muscles are unable to rest since they are involved in taking in a breath every five to six seconds. When there is a chest wall injury, the pectoralis muscles that cover the front part of the chest and help the arms with lifting, the intercostal muscles that are located between the ribs, and the upper back muscles can all go into spasm. Regardless of whether there is a broken or bruised rib or a strained muscle, attempts to take a deep breath may cause sharp pain as the chest wall moves and the damaged muscle is stretched. While an injured arm can be rested in a sling, or crutches can be used to rest an injured leg, it is difficult to stop breathing. It means that 12-14 times a minute, the injured muscle is required to work and stretch. Each breath is painful and delays healing. Chest wall muscles strains may take weeks to heal.

Neck strains

Numerous muscles are required to keep the head optimally stable on the shoulders and to allow it to swivel in many directions. Injuries are common to the trapezius and sternomastoid muscles, the large muscles that do the major the work of neck turning. Smaller muscles that attach to the bony prominences of the neck can also be strained. Depending upon the injury, significant pain and spasm can occur that is long-lasting. Whiplash is a nonmedical term that describes strains and sprains of the neck that occur with violent flexion-extension injuries. Many structures can be the source of pain, and treatment results depend upon which structure, from muscle to tendon to ligament to nerve, is involved.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/5/2015
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