Regardless of what part of your body may hurt, if you have injured yourself you need help NOW. This is especially true if you experience a sharp, throbbing pain in your knee or ankle, or any other limb, after stumbling or falling. You may not be able to put any pressure on that limb, which can cause your other joints to be susceptible to injury as well.
The human body is a complex but delicate structure, and it only takes one small misstep to tear or damage the fragile ligaments or smaller bones. If that happens, you need medical care as soon as possible.
Any joint that has been injured could be a sprain, a strain, or a fracture. What’s the difference? Here is a simplified look at the differences in a sprain, strain, and fracture:
- A sprain is an actual stretch or tear of a ligament (which connects bones).
- A strain is a twist, pull or tear of a muscle, or a tendon (which connects muscle to bone).
- A fracture, or break, is a bone that is fractured, chipped, or broken.
If it’s a Sprain or Fracture
Whether you have a sprain or fracture can be difficult to decide without a professional diagnosis, since they have many symptoms in common. With either kind of condition, you could notice the following signs soon after the injury.
- The most distinctive symptom may be a sharp and throbbing pain immediately after the injury.
- You won’t be able to put any or little weight on that particular joint without pain.
- Swelling and bruising will quickly arise in the affected area.
- It will be difficult to move or get the affected area to respond.
- If the area is deformed, it is more likely that you have a fracture, and this will require medical help to reset.
- Numbness or tingling can indicate either condition, but are serious alerts for medical diagnosis.
While a fracture obviously requires expert help and devices to reset the bone for healing, a sprain can be just as serious, depending on the degree of damage and any other complications. Typically, however, a sprain is much simpler to treat than a fracture.
If it’s a Strain
Strains can be less serious than sprains or fractures, but still require medical attention – a severe strain may still require surgery. There are two kinds of strains: acute and chronic. Acute strains occur when a muscle or tendon is stretched or pulled. Chronic strains can happen over time and be more serious, occurring because of overuse or repetitive movement (“tennis elbow” or carpal tunnel are a good examples of a chronic strain). Symptoms may include:
- Pain or cramping
- Muscle spasm or weakness
If a strain is severe enough, the muscle and/or tendon could rupture, and this is a profoundly serious injury and will need medical attention immediately.
Seeking Medical Attention
Regardless of whether you think you have a strain, sprain or fracture, you should get a professional diagnosis as soon as possible. A trip to the emergency department may be called for if you are in excruciating pain or you fear a life-threatening situation. If there’s a little more room to breathe in the situation, a better option may be a visit to your local urgent care center.
Urgent care centers are vastly more affordable than ERs, and they are typically well equipped to deal with strains, sprains and broken bones. Typically an urgent care can see you almost immediately, and without an appointment. Urgent care facilities are usually open into the evenings and on weekends.
As with most conditions that could be serious, a prompt diagnosis is most important. To determine the extent of damage and the nature of the condition may require an x-ray. Healing and a treatment plan can only come after diagnosis, which in turn may involve other specialists.
Dr. Gregory Blomquist, Chief Medical Officer at CommunityMed Family Urgent Care, emphasizes the need for “prompt diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition” for the best outcome to any injury. Your initial diagnosis can indicate whether specialist or therapist referrals are recommended.
Most strains and sprains can proceed directly into treatment following diagnosis. You could be as lucky as only needing to keep weight off the injured area for a time, and receiving the traditional RICE prescription: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
You might be fitted or supplied with a medical device such as a sling, boot or crutch to support or immobilize the area during the recovery period. Pain medications might be prescribed, and ibuprofen or a similar NSAID will typically be effective pain relief for most sprains and strains.
More seriously, an adjustable splint may be required during initial evaluations as a continuing diagnosis during the initial treatment. For fractures, a cast may be required to hold the broken bones into the correct alignment to heal successfully. Sometimes surgery may be called for to set pins or screws and other devices to hold everything together.
As the treatment plan commences, pay attention to warning signs you will have been told to watch for, such as acute sensations in the affected area, pain or swelling, or loss of motor control.
Following instructions is the key to successful healing. Be the best patient you can be and abide by the aftercare instructions from your medical provider, and return for the prescribed check-in evaluations.