HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section I–Common Health Problems Caution

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Sprains, Strains & Sports Injuries

“We were playing football on a Saturday after-noon when one guy dislocated a shoulder. You could tell because it was 3 inches lower than the other shoulder. We iced it and took him to the health service.”

Daniel P., University of the Pacific

Signs, Symptoms & Causes

Male with soccer ballSprains

A sprain happens when you overstretch or tear a ligament (fibrous tissue that connects bones). A joint is affected, but there is no dislocation or fracture.

Sprains usually occur from an accident, injury, or fall. Symptoms are rapid pain, swelling, bruising, and a warm feeling at the injured site.


A strain is an injury to the muscles or tendons (tissues that connect muscles to bones). A strain usually occurs when you overstretch or overexert a muscle or tendon (not a ligament). This is usually caused by overuse and injuries, including sports injuries. Symptoms are pain, tenderness, swelling, and bruising.

You can have a sprain and strain at the same time, such as an ankle sprain that causes strain on the Achilles tendon.

Sports Injuries


Achilles tendon pain is caused by a stretch or tear or irritation to the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the back of the heel.


Blisters are due to friction, such as from poor fitting shoes or socks.


Muscle soreness occurs when you have worked out too hard and too long.


Shinsplints are mild to severe aches in front of the lower leg.


Stress fractures are microfractures, which usually involve the bones of the feet or legs. They are usually caused by a sudden increase in the amount of weight bearing exercise.

Sports injury symptoms vary depending on the injury. They include pain, tenderness, swelling, and bruising. Bones may be broken or dislocated.


Treatment depends on the injury and the extent of damage. Self-care may suffice for mild injuries.

Sports injuries and sprains may require medical treatment. Some sprains require a cast. Others may need surgery if the tissue affected is torn.

Broken bones (other than broken toes) need immediate medical care.

Questions to Ask

Is a head, neck, or spinal injury suspected by any of the following symptoms?

  • Paralysis

  • Inability to open and close the fingers or move the toes

  • Feelings of numbness in the legs, arms, shoulders, or any other part of the body

  • Appearance that the head, neck, or back is in an odd position

  • Immediate neck pain

{Note: If any of the above symptoms exist, tell the victim to lie still and not move his or her head, neck, back, etc. Place rolled towels, articles of clothing, etc. on both sides of the neck and/or body. Tie and wrap in place, but don’t interfere with the victim’s breathing. If necessary, use both of your hands, one on each side of the victim’s head, to keep the head from moving. Call 9-1-1!}

Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Did a strain or sprain occur with great force from a vehicle accident or a fall from a high place? Yes. Get Immediate Care.



Are any of these signs present?

  • A bone sticks out or bones in the injured part make a grating sound.

  • An injured body part looks crooked or misshapen.

  • A loss of feeling occurs in the injured body part.

  • You are unable to move or put weight on the injured part.

Yes. Get Immediate Care.



Are any of these signs present?

  • The skin around the injury turns blue and/or feels cold and numb.

  • Bad pain and swelling occur or the pain gets worse.

  • Pain is felt when you press along the bone near the injury.

Yes. See Provider.

{Note: If you are in a sports program and you have an injury, contact your trainer.}



Does the sprain or strain not improve after using self-care measures for 4 days?

Yes. Call Provider.



To Prevent Serious Injuries (especially during contact sports):


Wear the right protective gear and clothing for the sport. Items to wear include a helmet, shoulder, knee, and wrist pads, a mouth guard, etc.


Train in the sport so you learn how to avoid injury. “Weekend athletes” are prone to injury.


Follow the rules that apply to the sport.

General Prevention:

bullet Ease into any exercise program. Increase activity gradually.
bullet Do warm-up stretching exercises before the activity. Stretch and hold for at least 30 seconds. Don’t bounce.
bullet Wear proper-fitting shoes that provide shock absorption and stability.
bullet Avoid running on hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete. Run on flat surfaces instead of uphill. Running uphill aggravates the stress put on the Achilles tendon.
bullet Use the softest surface available when you exercise.
bullet Wear shoes and socks that fit well. The widest area of your foot should match the widest area of the shoe. You should also be able to wiggle your toes with the shoe on, in both a sitting and standing position. The inner seams of the shoe should not rub against areas of your feet.
bullet Avoid locking your knees. When jumping, land with your knees bent.
bullet Don’t overdo it. Stop if you feel pain.
bullet Cool down after exercise. Do the activity at a slower pace for 5 minutes.

To Treat a Sprain, Strain, or Sports Injury:


If the injury does not appear serious, stop what you are doing and use R.I.C.E.:

Rest. Rest the injured area as much as possible for 24 to 48 hours.

Ice. Ice the injured area as soon as possible.

  • Use a bag of frozen vegetables, an ice pack, or put ice in a heavy plastic bag with a little water. Wrap the ice pack in a towel before placing it on the injured area.

  • Apply the ice pack to the injured area for 10 minutes every 2 hours for the next 48 hours during nonsleeping times.

Compression. Apply a snug elastic bandage to the injured area. Numbness, tingling, or increased pain means the bandage is too tight. Remove the bandage every 3 to 4 hours and leave it off for 15 to 20 minutes each time.

Elevation. Raise the injured area above heart level.

Elastic Bandages

Use an elastic
bandage to compress the injured area.


Take an over-the-counter medicine for pain, if necessary. (See “OTC Medications for "Pain relief").

{Note: Many sports medicine providers do not recommend aspirin-like medication initially, because it can aggravate bleeding and bruising.}

bullet If you sprained a finger or hand, remove rings. (If you don’t and your fingers swell up, the rings may have to be cut off.)
bullet Try liniments and balms. These provide a cooling or warming sensation. These ointments only mask the pain of sore muscles, though. They do not promote healing.
bullet Once the injured area begins to heal, do M.S.A. techniques:

Movement. Work to establish a full range of motion as soon as possible after an injury. This will help maintain flexibility during healing and prevent scar tissue formed by the injury from limiting future performance.

Strength. Gradually strengthen the injured area once the inflammation is controlled and a range of motion is back.

Alternative Activities. Do regular exercise using activities that do not strain the injured part. Start this a few days after the injury, even though the injured part is still healing.

Doctor examining patient's foot.

Use crutches only
when it is too painful to bear weight.

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©2005, 6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine All rights reserved.
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December 08, 2005