Is it a break, sprain, strain or tear?

Whether you're a marathon runner or you spend your days behind a desk, at some point in your life, it's likely that you'll have an injury to a bone, joint, tendon or ligament.

It can be hard to tell if you've simply overdone it or have an injury that needs medical attention. Here's an overview of some common injuries, at-home treatments and advice on when to see your doctor.



Broken bones are a common injury, but Eric Novack, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and independent member of the HonorHealth Medical Staff, sees many patients who are confused about them. "People come in with a fractured wrist and don't realize that means it's broken," he said.

Bones can break in different ways. For instance, bones can break and remain in place, but bones also may shift or become displaced from the impact of a break. An orthopedic surgeon should evaluate your injury to determine whether or not surgery is required.


Sprains are also commonplace. Some people use the term "sprain" to cover a broad range of injuries. "This is another common source of confusion," said Dr. Novack.

By definition, a sprain is specifically a stretch or tear in a ligament, or the tissue that connects bones to each other.


The most benign kind of injury, a strain involves a twist, pull or tear of your tendon or muscle. "This is not likely to be structural, and it doesn't require any surgical intervention," said Dr. Novack.


Tears can happen to a variety of different soft tissues, such as tendons, muscles or ligaments. Tears can either be complete, meaning they go all the way through the tissue, or incomplete, meaning they involve only part of the tissue in question. Tears can be nonretracted or retracted:

  • Nonretracted tears indicate torn tissue that remains in place.
  • Retracted refers to tears that have pulled the tissue back from its normal position.

When to see a doctor — and when to wait it out

It can be difficult to know when to head to the doctor or when to rest for a few days at home.

Dr. Novack urges you to see your doctor right away for an injury when:

  • There's an obvious deformity.
  • You have a large, open wound.
  • Your pain isn't controlled with over-the-counter pain medications.
  • You're unable to bear weight.

For other injuries, it's wise to rest your injured body part, using ice packs and elevating it to reduce inflammation. Dr. Novack also advises you to limit or reduce your activity level and take oral anti-inflammatory medication, if it's safe for you, for a few days.

If that doesn't help, it may be time to see a doctor, especially if your injury interferes with your daily activities. "If you sustain an injury and it's not improving, it's worth getting seen," said Dr. Novack.

Parents should watch their children's injuries closely because it can be hard to determine the extent of an injury in a child. If something seems off, take them to the doctor for an evaluation.

"Denial is not a treatment," said Dr. Novack. "If something is clearly not right, it's better to get seen early than to pretend it isn't there."

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