recovery time sprains strains

Muscle strains and ligament sprains are common injuries. They can happen while pushing yourself during an athletic event, an accident at work, or even a misstep on an ordinary day.

Muscle strains and ligament sprains can significantly impact a person’s ability to perform daily tasks or exercise. Treating a strain or sprain correctly can improve recovery time.

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What Are Muscle Strains and Ligament Sprains?

The words strain and sprain sound alike, but they’re different injuries.

  • A strain is a torn muscle caused by stretching a muscle or tendon (the tissue that attaches the muscle to a joint) too far or applying too much pressure.
  • Sprains occur when a ligament (the band of tissue that attaches a bone to a joint) stretches too far.

You can strain a muscle or sprain a ligament. But how do you know if your injury is a sprain or strain?

Common types of sprains and strains

Specific types of injury are more common in certain joints.

These common injuries are often either ligament sprains or muscle strains:

  • Ankle sprain. One of the most common sprains occurs when the foot turns inward, stretching or tearing the ligaments on the outside of the ankle.
  • Back strain. These strains often occur in the lower back from lifting heavy objects, sudden movements, or sustained exertion over time.
  • Calf muscle strain (also known as a “pulled calf”). Involves muscles in the back of the lower leg and can happen during activities like running or jumping.
  • Groin strain. This type of strain affects the muscles on the inner thigh and is common in sports that involve quick side-to-side movements or rapid direction changes.
  • Hamstring strain. This injury to the muscles in the back of the thigh can happen during activities involving running, jumping, or sudden starts and stops.
  • Knee sprain. These sprains involve the ligaments that support the knee and can range from minor injuries to more severe ones like ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) sprains.
  • Wrist sprain. This is frequently the result of a fall onto an outstretched hand, leading to stretched or torn ligaments in the wrist.

Muscle strain recovery time

Several factors affect how long it takes to treat and recover from a sprain or strain. Knowing muscle strain recovery time is vital to creating a realistic plan for your recovery.

For instance, calf muscle and lower back strains typically require around 20 days of recovery. Muscle strain recovery timelines vary based on the severity of the sprain and the person’s health.

“Several factors determine when you can return to daily activities and playing sports,” says Trevor Delaney, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

“You will typically be able to return to daily activities gradually while being treated by a physical therapist. If you plan to return to sports activities, you will likely do this toward the end of treatment.”

After seeing your injury, a physical therapist can set a time frame for returning to activity. When they see stability in the injured joint and strength in the surrounding muscles, they can clear you for activity.

Treatment for Muscle Strains and Ligament Sprains

Many muscle strains and ligament sprains can heal at home, provided you give them the proper care.

How do you heal a sprained muscle quickly?

Self-care measures can help heal mild to moderate strains and sprains. These include rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). RICE aims to reduce swelling, ease pain, and speed healing in the first days after the injury.

The rest period for strains and sprains varies depending on the severity of the injury. Mild injuries may require only a few days of rest. More severe injuries could require several weeks of recovery.

During this time, avoid activities that could make the injury worse. Slowly add back movement to keep flexibility and strength without overloading the joint.

When to see a doctor for a strain or sprain

Severe strains or sprains that don’t improve with home self-care may need medical help. If a strain persists or if the injury is severe, your doctor can offer treatment to help the joint heal and bring back function.

These include:

  • Physical therapy. A tailored physical therapy program for sprains and strains can help restore strength and flexibility. Physical therapists may use targeted exercises, massage, or electrical stimulation to aid recovery.
  • Medicines. Over-the-counter or prescription medicines can help manage pain and reduce swelling.
  • Supportive braces or taping. Braces or kinesiology taping can help with some injuries, especially those involving major joints or muscles.
  • Surgery. Though rare for muscle strains, surgery may become necessary for complete tears or strains that fail to heal.

Returning to Daily Activities After a Sprain or Strain

Returning to daily activity after a strain or sprain may take quite a while.

“As a general rule, once you return to an activity or sport following a sprain or strain, you should be able to do so without any complaints,” Delaney says. “It is difficult to apply a general recovery time for sprains or strains; however, once a therapist evaluates your injury, a more accurate time frame can be determined.”

After your therapist has cleared you, a desired activity is generally safe if it doesn’t cause:

  • Sharp or stabbing pain.
  • Pain that gets worse throughout the activity.
  • Pain that occurs after activity and lasts into the next day.

Before returning to activity, consult your doctor or physical therapist. If activity causes pain or swelling, ask for their advice.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.