Five Things Everyone Should Know About Sprains, Strains and Fractures

During the summer months, we see an increase in patients who come in with orthopedic injuries, like sprains, strains and fractures.  It’s important that these injuries are diagnosed correctly, and appropriately treated.

Here are the five top questions our patients have about orthopedic injuries, asked and answered!

1. What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?

           A sprain happens when ligaments (elastic bands that attach to bones and hold joints together) are stretched or partially torn.  Sprains are caused by joints being overstretched or twisted. While the most commonly sprained joint is the ankle, sprains can also happen in knees, feet, wrists, elbows and shoulders.

           A strain happens when a tendon or muscle is overstretched or partially torn. The most commonly-strained body parts are the low back and hamstring.

2. What’s the difference between a fracture and a break?

           It’s a common misconception that fractured bones are different from broken bones.  But actually, these terms are interchangeable!  “Fracture” is the medical term we use to describe a broken bone.  A fracture can range from a slight (or hairline) break to a bone that’s broken all the way through.

3. How are sprains, strains and fractures diagnosed?

          Most sprains and strains are diagnosed based on the mechanism of injury (a description of how the trauma happened), and a clinical exam.  Common exam findings include bruising, swelling and tenderness to the touch.

          If there’s tenderness along the bone, or deformity of a joint, an X-ray is performed to rule out a fracture. In more severe injuries, or when healing takes longer than expected, ligament and tendon damage is further evaluated with an MRI.

4. How are sprains and strains treated?

           Most sprains and strains heal on their own within 2-3 weeks.  An acronym we use to describe the best home treatments for orthopedic injuries is RICE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.

             Rest: Keep the injured area as still as possible -- and, in the case of lower extremity injuries, use crutches to avoid weight bearing until the injury has healed.

              Ice: Apply ice for 15 minutes at least twice a day.  (Hint: Bags of frozen vegetables make great ice packs because they’re inexpensive, reusable, and they’re sealed so they won’t leak.)

              Compression: In most orthopedic injuries, we apply a brace, ACE wrap or splint.  This not only stabilizes injured joints, but also applies gentle pressure to minimize swelling.

              Elevation: Because of gravity, swelling settles in the lowest part of your body.  For injuries of the lower extremities, keeping the limb propped up to the level of your waist can minimize the swelling and alleviate pressure.

               In addition to RICE, we also recommend taking an over-the-counter analgesic (like Ibuprofen or Naproxen) to alleviate pain and inflammation.

5. How are fractures treated?

               Fracture treatment depends on where the fracture is, and how severe it is.  For most fractures, we apply a splint or partial cast, and refer patients to an orthopedic specialist who determines what, if any, further treatment is needed, and advises patients when they can return to their normal activities.  Most pediatric fractures heal within 4 weeks, and most adult fractures heal within 4-6 weeks.


At Golden Gate Urgent Care, we have on-site digital X-rays as well as crutches, braces and splints!  If you have an injury, you can make an appointment online or simply walk in to get the care you need.  We have six Bay Area locations, and we’re open seven days a week!

Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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