First Aid For Sprains and Strains

I am constantly surprised by how many people come into my practice with a sprain or strain and have done no first aid to manage the swelling and pain or to aid in the healing process.

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A sprain is an injury that happens to a ligament and occurs due to stretching or tearing of the ligament. This is usually due to some form of trauma like a fall.

A ligament is a thick band of tissue that connects 2 bones across a joint, and holds it steady under pressure and during movement and activity. Every joint has ligaments around it so all joints can be potentially affected by a sprain, but the ankle is the most common. Sprains can range from very mild to a complete tear.


A strain is an injury that happens to a muscle or the muscle tendon. Again it can range from very mild to a complete tear and is caused by overstretching or excessive force through the muscle.

First Aid

Rest - You should rest the injured person and the injured part of the body. It is important for 2 reasons. The first is it helps to protect the injured area from further damage or injury and the second is it allows healing to begin. It should be noted that while rest is important in the early stages of recovery from a sprain or strain after 2 days gentle and slowly increasing activity should be resumed, within the limits of pain, except in the most severe of cases. If you require more that 2 days rest due to pain then you should consult your physiotherapist or GP for further advice.The first aid for a sprain or a strain is very simple and easy to remember. You use the old RICE technique that I am sure most people are familiar with. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation.

Ice - Cooling the injured area down helps to reduce swelling and bleeding which will mean that healing starts earlier and is more effective in the first 2 days. Ice should be applied for no longer than 20 minutes at a time and then taken off for at least 40 minutes between applications. You should use ice for 2 days after a sprain or a strain, but if after this time the joint still feels hot to touch then you should continue using ice.

Compression - This helps to reduce and limit swelling and will therefore help to speed up recovery time. Just make sure you do not wrap the area so tightly that you cut off all blood supply.

Elevation - This also helps to reduce swelling and so aids in reduced recovery time. If the injury is in an arm or leg you should try and raise the injured area to above the level of the heart. This may mean you will need to lie the injured person down and prop the limb up on a pillow or two.

Remember while sprains and strains are common people occasionally mistake a fracture or more serious injury for a sprain or strain. If you have any doubt about the seriousness of the injury then you need to see your health care professional as soon as possible. This can mean anything from calling an ambulance immediately or seeing your GP or physiotherapist for further assessment and advice.

Sprains and strains can also be very severe and may need further medical assessment and treatment. I would suggest you see your GP or physiotherapist for further advice if this is the case.

If pain is not decreasing and you are unable to use the injured area for any length of time then seek further medical advice.

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