Sprains and Strains in Children
What are sprains and strains in children?
Sprains and strains are types of injuries. A sprain is an injury to a ligament while
a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon.
Ligaments and tendons are made of fibrous tissue. They connect different parts of
the body. Ligaments are found at the joints, where they join bones together. Tendons
attach muscles to bone.
What causes sprains and strains in a child?
A sudden stretching, twisting, or tearing of a ligament causes a sprain. This injury
can happen when a child falls or suffers a hit to the body. Sprains often affect the
ankles, knees, or wrists.
A pulling or tearing of a muscle or a tendon causes a strain. This type of injury
can happen suddenly, such as when a child overstretches a muscle. Or it can happen
over time if a child overuses a muscle or tendon. Overuse can occur during activities
that require similar movements to be repeated over and over.
Which children are at risk for sprains and strains?
Active teens or those who play sports are most at risk for a sprain or a strain. These
injuries are not common in younger children. That is because their growth plates are
weaker than the muscles or tendons. Growth plates are areas of bone growth at the
ends of long bones. Instead, younger children are more likely to have broken bones.
What are the symptoms of sprains and strains in a child?
Symptoms may occur a bit differently in each child. Symptoms of a sprain or a strain
often depend on the severity of the injury. Below are the most common symptoms your
child may feel in the injured area:
Warmth, bruising, or redness
Trouble using or moving the injured area in a normal way
These symptoms may look like other health problems. Make sure your child sees their
healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How are sprains and strains diagnosed in a child?
Your child’s healthcare provider makes the diagnosis with a physical exam. During
the exam, they ask about your child’s health history and how the injury happened.
Your child may also need:
X-rays. This test makes images of internal tissues, bones, and organs.
MRI. This test uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to
make detailed images of organs and structures within the body.
CT scan. This test uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan
shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than
How are sprains and strains treated in a child?
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also
depend on how severe the condition is.
Initial treatment for a sprain or a strain includes rest, ice, compression, and elevation
(RICE). Other treatment choices may include:
Pain medicines, such as ibuprofen
Splint or cast
Crutches or wheelchair
Physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the injured muscles, ligaments, and tendons
Surgery, especially if the injury reoccurs or if a muscle, tendon, or ligament is
Sprains and strains usually heal quite quickly in children and teens. Make sure your
child follows any activity restrictions and stretching and strengthening exercises
to prevent reinjury. The risk for reinjury is greater in the first 2 months, but can
occur even after that.
What can I do to prevent sprains and strains in my child?
Many sprains and strains are sports injuries. They are from either injury or overuse
of muscles or joints. Many sports injuries can be prevented by:
Warming up first
Training and conditioning properly
Wearing the right protective gear
Using the right equipment
You can help your child prevent overuse injuries by making sure your child:
Sets aside 1 to 2 days per week for rest from competitive sports and training
Takes breaks from a specific sport during the year
Focuses on fun, skill-building, safety, and sportsmanship when playing sports
When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?
Call your child’s healthcare provider if:
There is a prolonged, visible deformity of the affected area
Severe pain prevents the use of the ligament, tendon, or muscle
The affected area is still unstable after the sprain or strain has healed
Key points about sprains and strains in children
Sprains and strains are types of injuries. A sprain is an injury to a ligament, while
a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon.
Sprains and strains are uncommon in younger children, and fractures or injuries to
the growth plate should always be suspected.
A sudden stretching, twisting, or tearing of a ligament causes a sprain. It can happen
from a fall or a hit to the body.
A pulling or tearing of a muscle or a tendon causes a strain. It can happen suddenly
or over time.
Pain and swelling are some of the most common symptoms of both injuries.
A physical exam and certain tests, such as X-rays, can help diagnose sprains and strains.
Treatment may include RICE, pain medicine, and physical therapy. In some cases, surgery
may be needed.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:
Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you
for your child.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child.
Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose
for that visit.
Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important
if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.