Sports injuries: Is it a sprain or a strain?

Dr. Kevin Burroughs helps people avoid sport injuries and treats those who don't.

Millions of people receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year, and warmer weather lures people outside, where many people put to work the muscles that have been underused during colder months.

Those conditions can lead to injuries.

"These injuries don't just occur in athletes," said Burroughs, who has lived and worked in Concord for nearly eight years with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. "Many of these types of injuries, whether due to overuse or trauma, can sideline any athlete - young or old, professional or amateur, novice or veteran and those just staying active."

Burroughs serves on the board of directors for the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the N.C. High School Athletic Association Sports Medicine Committee and the N.C. Medical Society Sports Medicine Committee. In 2008, he was the N.C. Athletic Trainers Association's Sports Medicine Person of the Year.

He's also founder and director of Cabarrus Sports Medicine Fellowship and the founder/director of Sports Medicine and Injury Center on Poplar Tent Road in Concord.

The most common category of sports injury is overuse, which includes tendinitis, bursitis and muscle strains, he said. Next would be acute injuries from activities, with the most common being sprains.

Burroughs also cautioned that people should talk with their doctors before performing any exercise or treatment.

Whether you twist an ankle pivoting on the basketball court or sliding into third base on the baseball diamond, it's good to know the subtle nuances of a sprain versus a strain.

"Some people use these terms interchangeably, but they are two different injuries," said Burroughs. "A sprain is an injury involving the stretching or tearing of a ligament (tissue that connects bone to bone) or a joint capsule. The most common sprain is of the ankle, usually following a severe 'rolling' of the ankle.

"A strain is an injury involving the stretching or tearing of a muscle and/or tendon structure," Burroughs continued. "Strains usually take place when a muscle is stretched and suddenly contracts, as with running or jumping. Symptoms for an acute muscle strain may include pain, muscle spasm, loss of strength and limited range of motion."

Tendinitis, another enemy of those who tend to stay in motion, is the irritation and inflammation of a tendon (the tough fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone) and is commonly brought on by repetitive stress or overuse. It usually affects shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and feet or ankles.

"The typical stages are first noticing pain after activity, then pain during activity, then pain constantly," said Burroughs. "If these problems are ignored, they can lead to degenerative breakdown that could require surgery. Most tendinitis cases can be treated with the basic ideas of relative reduction in activity, ice and at times anti-inflammatory medications."

A proper warm-up, with easy or light stretching before activity, helps prevent overuse injuries. But working on overall flexibility is better.

"Many times people focus on lifting weights and building muscle," said Burroughs. "However, you should not forget flexibility as a key to overall conditioning. Yoga and Pilates can be excellent additions to an overall conditioning program. Tight, inflexible muscles, particularly in the cold, are more likely to suffer injury."

Beyond overuse injuries are the acute sprains, particularly those of the ankle.

"Most ankle injuries are truly sprains, and should be treated with the general principals of 'R.I.C.E.,'" said Burroughs, adding that it also holds true for all acute injuries. "Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation."

Keep weight off the injured body part and apply ice as soon as possible for 20 minutes on and an hour off, six to eight times per day.

Proper equipment, warming up and using proper technique are ways to avoid injury, and listening to your body doesn't hurt.

"Pain is your body's way of telling you something is wrong," said Burroughs. "Soreness is OK; pain is not. If the discomfort hasn't gone away in two or three days, or if you are experiencing pain, you should see your doctor as you may have truly injured yourself.

"The bottom line is that exercise and activity are good and can be a vital part in health and psychological well-being. However, just like the warning light on your dashboard, pain is your signal that something is wrong in the system."