Sprains and strains in young athletes

Sprains and strains can be an acute injury or an overuse injury. An acute injury is one that happens suddenly, like from a bad fall. An overuse injury results from using an area of the body too much, like playing sports that continually stress the knees or shoulders.

Overuse-related sprains and strains often are the result of:

  • A rapid increase in activity levels, such as going from summer vacation into a fall sports season too quickly
  • A lack of knowledge or skills in a sport, common in athletes participating in a sport for the first time
  • Repeated energetic activity without enough rest periods

Video: Our athletic trainers talk about sprains and strains



Watch for these symptoms

The signs of a sprain or strain can vary, but the most common ones are:

  • Pain in the injured area
  • Swelling in the injured area
  • Difficulty using or moving the injured area
  • Warmth, bruising and/or redness in the injured area

Treating a sprain or strain

Doctors advise reducing pain and swelling with the “RICE” approach for the first day or two after a sprain or strain:

  • Rest: Your child’s doctor may recommend not putting any weight on the injured area for 48 hours. Your child might need crutches or a cane.
  • Ice: Apply ice to the injury for 20 minutes at a time. You can use a cold pack or a plastic bag filled with ice and wrapped in a towel. Your child’s doctor may advise you to do this four to eight times a day.
  • Compress: Use splints, casts, bandages or special boots to compress the sprained or strained area. Ask your child’s doctor which one is best and how tight it should be.
  • Elevate: Rest the injured area on a pillow, and keep it elevated above the heart as much as possible.

Your child’s doctor may also recommend over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

After two days, doctors usually advise gently exercising the sprained or strained area. This can help increase strength and prevent stiffness. Your child’s doctor can tell you when it’s safe for your child to return to usual activities.

When to see a doctor

Severe sprains and strains need medical attention. So, be sure to make an appointment with your child’s doctor in any of these circumstances:

  • Symptoms last more than two or three days
  • Your child can’t walk or bear weight
  • Your child has poor range of motion
  • The injured area is visibly deformed for a prolonged amount of time
  • Severe pain prevents use of an arm, leg, wrist, ankle or knee

Steer clear of a sprain or strain:

Your child can help avoid sprains and strains with some smart steps:

  • Warm up and stretch before playing a sport or exercising.
  • Don’t play sports when tired or in pain.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet and get plenty of rest to keep muscles strong.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Wear well-fitting shoes and protective equipment. Get new shoes if the heel wears down on one side.
  • Get plenty of exercise.
  • Don’t play a sport unless you’re in the right physical condition to do so.
  • Run on flat surfaces.
  • As the season begins, increase training levels gradually. Try to follow the “10 percent rule.” This means increasing training levels by 10 percent each week to give the body enough time to recover. This applies to increasing speed or mileage for runners and increasing the amount of weight in strength-training programs.