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Which Is Worse, Back Strain Or Sprain?

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Back pain is a common issue that around 16 million adults in America struggle with daily. Chronic and acute back pain can vary in severity, from age-induced osteoporosis to sudden back strain and back sprain. Strain and sprains are common injuries that everyone will experience but are easily treatable or manageable.

But what is worse, back strain or sprain? Both conditions aren’t serious but they can cause noticeable changes on a person’s quality of life if left untreated. Telling them apart can help patients understand how to address either injury and determine whether it’s time to see a medical professional. 

Back Strain vs. Back Sprain: Which Is Worse?

Although neither injury is worse than the other it’s worth looking into the differences to understand how the injury occurs and how it’s treated. 

They’re both caused by excess force, stretching, or tearing of the soft tissues surrounding your joints. While joints are found in almost every part of the body, the most common joint injuries involve the lower back, buttocks, and legs. When these tissues get damaged, patients may experience acute or chronic pain after developing a sprain or a strain. 

While they share a lot of the same symptoms, there are important medical distinctions separating the two. Here is a short table summarizing the differences:

Injuries to the tissue that connects two bones togetherInjuries to the muscle or tissue that attaches directly to the bone
Caused by an external force or shock that dislocates the jointCaused by the overuse of a muscle or tendons
Usually experienced in the thumbs, wrists, knees, and anklesUsually experienced in the legs, feet, arms, and back
Happens suddenlyMay develop over time
May cause bruising around the affected jointMay cause spasms in the muscle group or area

Although  both terms can be used interchangeably, a patient needs to know the difference so they can better inform their doctor and get a more suitable form of healthcare treatment.

Back strains and back sprains aren’t always caused by injuries. Sometimes it’s possible to develop an injury  with normal everyday activities like stretching or moving around. Risk management is the best way to avoid getting either injury, especially if you do activities that increase your chances of developing a strain or sprain.

How Do I Know If It’s Back Strain?

Back strain isn’t uncommon. It is often caused by regular repetitive movements or if the body is inactive for long periods of time. These changes can tax the flexibility of the muscles, resulting in back sprains. 

Common symptoms of strains will include:

Since strains can develop suddenly or over time, most people can develop one form of back strain or another if they aren’t careful. Athletes and other physically active people are most at risk of developing back strains, especially if they engage in activities like running, tennis, or rowing.

Strains can be a sign of more serious issues like nerve damage, so patients should always consult their doctor as soon as they get one. Sudden inflammation or acute pain without warning or cause can be a sign that the sprain is pressing on nerves around the joint, which can lead to serious complications if left untreated.

Some other causes of back strain can include:

Treatment options for back strain will often integrate RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) therapy for the first 24 to 48 hours. This can reduce the active symptoms of back strain and can help the patient manage the pain until their doctor recommends a better treatment method. Medications like painkillers and topical creams can also accelerate the healing process.

Other healthcare treatment options may include medication and surgery, but this only applies to severe cases that need immediate medical attention, or if the nature of the strain interferes with a routine in the patient’s life.

How Do I Know If It’s Back Sprain?

Sprains are sudden and forceful misalignments of your joints, which cause tearing in the muscles and ligaments surrounding it. This kind of back pain is acute and can often worsen shortly after the incident occurs. The pain isn’t limited to your lower back – if a big enough muscle is torn, it can cause acute pain from your buttocks to your calves.

Common symptoms of sprains will include:

Sprains can be prevented with  mindful movement, correct body posture, and a healthy lifestyle. Avoiding situations where you are likely to injure your joints is an excellent way to avoid spraining, though it is also possible to get a sprain by going about your day-to-day activities.

Strains can be a secondary effect of a more serious problem like a bone fracture. While the bone fracture is undoubtedly the more serious problem that needs to be treated, alleviating the inflammation that accompanies the sprain is just as important. This allows the body to focus healing the bone fracture itself instead of the inflammation and gives the patient significant relief from the pain.

Other causes of sprains include:

Like strains, RICE therapy is recommended for managing and easing the symptoms of a sprain. Doctors will normally prescribe a prolonged period of bed rest immediately after getting a sprain. Over-the-counter medications may also be used, usually with old patients or severe cases.

Sprains are more manageable than strains and most patients forgo visiting the doctor in favor of taking care of the symptoms at home. However, a follow-up visit is highly recommended to make sure that the problem is just a sprain since situations like contact sports can often have other injuries that accompany the sprain itself.

Sprain and Strain Risk Management and Support Groups

Basic self-care and routine cooldown exercises are some of the best ways to avoid active sprain and strains. Aside from reducing the amount of inflammation after physical exercise, these exercises can also help alleviate strained nerves and allow the body to recover from fatigue. It also accelerates the healing process from strenuous physical activity.

You should also be aware of other, unexpected factors that can affect your likelihood of developing a strain or sprain. Improper stretching is one of the most probable causes, either due to weight lifting or just moving around. While stretching is a great way to avoid developing sprains and strains, improper stretching is also their most likely cause.

Doctors may also recommend that their patients join a support group for their back pain. These support groups can help patients engage in physical activities or provide a network to consult if the doctor isn’t available. Most support groups can be found online, like The American Chronic Pain Association.

 3 Questions Your Doctor May Ask You About Your Back Pain

Before you visit your doctor, here are three questions that they may ask you about your back strain or sprain. Preparing for these questions can help them give a better diagnosis of the exact circumstances of your back pain and recommend the best healthcare treatment option for you.

  1. How did it happen?

Try to remember the conditions surrounding your injury. Was it triggered without warning, or did you experience some physical trauma before it? Even factors like the ambient temperature in the room, what you were wearing, and what you did before and after the pain started can be useful information.

  1. How long has this been going on?

Your doctor will want to determine if your back strain or sprain is acute or chronic. Acute pain can be treated with medication and a few days of rest, but severe and chronic cases may need physical therapy to treat. Normally the longer your pain has been going on, the more intensive the treatment has to be.

  1. What are your sleeping habits like?

One probable cause of back strain and sprain is your sleeping position. Since your spine stays in a fixed position while you sleep, it can cause your joints to lock or freeze in place. Your doctor will most likely ask a few questions about your sleep quality and sleep habits, especially if your back pain peaks when you wake up or when you lie down.

Have Your Back Pain Diagnosed and Treated At The Spine And Rehab Group NY Today

While back sprains and strains are usually mild injuries, it’s still crucial for patients to visit the doctor for an accurate diagnosis and the best healthcare treatment options. Sprains and strains can be isolated incidents or they can signal something a more serious complication with your spinal development.

At The Spine And Rehab Group, we believe that early detection is the key to avoiding serious complications with your spine. Our doctors are fully licensed and certified to diagnose and treat all kinds of back pain, and address the primary cause of why they occur. For more information about our service or to schedule a check-up, visit one of our New York clinics today.

Read more: How Do I Stop My Lower Back From Hurting When I Walk?

Page Updated on Jun 20, 2022 by Dr. Hosny (Interventional Spine Specialist) of The Spine & Rehab Group
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