Can you tell the difference between a broken bone, a strain, and a sprain? And what should you do if you suspect such an injury?

  • See a doctor. First of all, consult with a doctor if you are injured. A doctor can do a thorough physical exam, order tests such as an x-ray or MRI to find out more about what type of injury you have, and recommend treatment. A doctor will also follow up to make sure the injury is healing and refer you, if needed, to a specialist such as a physical therapist, or sports medicine, or orthopedic doctor.
  • Can you tell the difference? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a fracture, strain, or sprain. All of these injuries can cause swelling, pain, and difficulty bearing weight or using a limb. A sprain refers to an injury of the ligaments – connective tissue that attaches bone to joints. A strain refers to an injury of muscle or tendons – connective tissue which attaches muscle to bones. A fracture refers to a break in bone. A dislocation refers to a bone out of its normal position.
  • Taking care of yourself. The Mayo Clinic offers an easy way to remember tips for self-care when dealing with sprains and strains: PRICE. This refers to:
    Protection – Immobilize the area to prevent further injury.
    • Rest – Take weight off the area of injury.
    • Ice – Immediately apply ice after an injury for up to 15 minutes at a time, but avoid frostbite. If you have a vascular disease or diabetes or an inability to sense temperature or touch, talk with a doctor before using ice.
    • Compression – Gently wrap the area with an ace bandage to reduce swelling, but avoid wrapping it too tightly. That could cause increased swelling, numbness, and pain.
    • Elevation – Elevating a limb helps reduce swelling.

    And, of course, contact a doctor and physical therapist about your specific injury and the next steps of treatment.

  • Seek medical attention. A broken bone always requires medical attention. Your doctor needs to know the type and severity of the break to determine the right treatment, including how to set the bone so it grows back properly. Dislocation of a bone also requires immediate medical attention to realign the bone. Dislocating a bone can be very painful. Anesthesia might be needed (and wanted) while the bone is being put back into place. Severe or traumatic injuries may require emergency medical attention, a 9-1-1 call, and immediate action to stop bleeding and immobilize the person and injury.
  • Don’t wait. Sometimes we limp around thinking an injury will heal on its own. And sometimes with minor injuries that is true. But it’s important to realize that you can worsen sprains, strains, and fractures by continuing to be active. See a doctor for guidance about whether or not you should exercise, what activity is good, and what activity should be avoided. You might need a referral to a specialist.
  • Prevention is the goal. The best thing to do about injuries is to prevent them. When playing sports, always wear recommended protective equipment such as helmets, knee pads, or shoulder pads. Wear solid shoes appropriate for the sport. Stretch before you work out but don’t overdo it. Overuse is one of the most common reasons for musculoskeletal injuries. Even school and youth-based sports activities should have a balance of activity, rest, and days off from play.

Outdoor and sports activity is good for our health. But engaging in it also increases your risk for injury. Take every precaution to reduce your risk. And educate yourself about what to do if an injury occurs.

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