Treating Sprains and Strains: The Role of Chiropractic Care 

 August 9, 2023

By  Dr. Polly Hediger

sprain strain chiropracticSprains and strains are extremely common injuries, accounting for nearly half of all sports and exercise-related injuries each year. But while they seem similar on the surface, sprains and strains affect different parts of the body and require targeted treatment plans. Read on to learn about the key differences between sprains vs strains, grading systems for classification, and how chiropractic care can facilitate healing.

Defining Sprains

A sprain refers to injury of a ligament, which serves to stabilize joints and allows motion. Ligaments connect bones together and are made up of tough, fibrous tissue. When a sprain occurs, the ligament either gets stretched beyond its limit or tears completely.

Ankle and wrist sprains are most common, though sprains can also affect the knees, thumbs and other joints. They frequently happen when a joint twists awkwardly or bears abnormal force. Sports like basketball, tennis and hiking on uneven terrain can lead to sprains. Ankle sprains in particular account for a quarter of all sports injuries according to research.

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • Pain, swelling or bruising over the affected joint. There may be tenderness directly over the injured ligament.
  • Instability of the joint, which may feel loose or give way.
  • Stiffness and reduced range of motion from inflammation and muscle guarding.
  • Popping or cracking sound during the injury. Severe sprains may involve an audible pop.
  • Weakness in surrounding muscles from pain and swelling.

Depending on the severity of ligament damage, sprains are assigned a grade from 1 to 3:

Grade 1 Sprain: Overstretching of the ligament without any tear or laxity in the joint. There may be microscopic damage to ligament fibers. Mild pain, tenderness and swelling will be present.

Grade 2 Sprain: Partial tearing of ligament fibers leading to some joint instability. Moderate pain, swelling and bruising typical. Some loss of function.

Grade 3 Sprain: A complete rupture of the ligament resulting in gross instability of the joint. Significant swelling, severe pain. Patient unable to bear weight or use the joint.

Defining Strains

In contrast to sprains, strains involve injury to muscles and tendons rather than ligaments. Strains happen when a muscle or tendon gets stretched too forcefully, leading to tearing of muscle fibers or tendon tissues.

Common sites for strains are the lower back, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf muscles. Sudden increases in activity like sprinting, lifting heavy objects or performing unfamiliar exercises can cause strains. Consistent overuse over time by athletes or workers performing repetitive motions also leads to strains.

Symptoms of a strained muscle include:

  • Localized pain that increases with motion of the affected muscle. Tenderness when palpating the injured area.
  • Muscle spasms and guarding in an effort to stabilize the muscle.
  • Loss of strength and range of motion. The injured muscle will be weak and stiff.
  • Bruising, swelling or inflammation may be present depending on severity.

As with sprains, grading helps classify strains from mild to severe:

Grade 1 Strain: Microscopic muscle tearing with minimal loss of strength and function. Mild pain and tenderness with use of the muscle. No major swelling present.

Grade 2 Strain: Partial muscle tear leading to compromised strength and motion. Moderate pain when using the muscle. Possible light bruising.

Grade 3 Strain: A complete rupture of the muscle. Significant loss of function accompanied by severe pain and extensive bruising, swelling. A palpable defect may be felt where muscle has torn.

Healing Times for Sprains and Strains

The grade of a sprain or strain impacts both treatment approach and healing timeline. Here’s a general overview:

Grade 1 Sprains/Strains:

  • Healing Time: 1-3 weeks with proper treatment
  • Treatment: Rest, ice, compression. Taping or bracing may help. Gentle movement and stretching when tolerated.

Grade 2 Sprains/Strains:

  • Healing Time: 3-8 weeks
  • Treatment: Longer period of immobilization followed by graduated physical therapy. May require use of crutches or boot.

Grade 3 Sprains/Strains:

  • Healing Time: 8+ weeks, up to several months
  • Treatment: Requires extended immobilization and no weight bearing, followed by intensive physical therapy. Surgery may be needed in some cases.

Keep in mind that incomplete rehabilitation or attempting activity too soon can greatly prolong recovery. Patience is key, along with following protocols and modifying activity levels throughout healing.

Benefits of Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care can be highly beneficial both in the initial treatment of sprains and strains as well as facilitating recovery. The hands-on, drug-free approach helps:

Control pain and inflammation: Chiropractors use gentle soft tissue work and joint mobilization techniques to relieve muscle tension and restore normal joint motion following injuries. This also increases blood flow to aid natural healing.

Accelerate healing: Specific chiropractic adjustments relieve neural tension, allowing muscles to relax. This decreases guarding and spasms so that rest, ice and compression can work optimally.

Improve mobility: As pain and inflammation subside, chiropractors use massage, stretching and exercises to gradually increase the joint’s range of motion and strengthen surrounding musculature.

Stabilize the injury: Braces, taping and other supports are used as needed to stabilize the affected joint or muscle without restricting mobility. This helps muscles relax and prevents reinjury during activity.

Restore function: The goal is to first allow the injury to heal properly, then rebuild strength and balance. Chiropractic adjustments and therapy help ensure full function is regained long-term.

Relieve associated pain: Sprains and strains often cause referred pain into the back, hips, neck and other areas due to compensatory movement patterns. Chiropractic care alleviates this pain as well.

Guide rehab: Chiropractors help determine when it’s appropriate to progress activity levels based on the stage of healing. They can also recommend exercises and stretches tailored to the specific muscles affected.

In short, chiropractic delivers an integrated, drug-free approach to managing sprains and strains. With chiropractic treatment, most patients are able to return to full activity levels after healing without recurrent issues. Seeking care quickly after an injury occurs is key for optimal outcomes.

Sprain and Strain Treatment Approaches

Below is an overview of common treatment methods used by chiropractors for sprains and strains:

Rest: Avoiding activity and weight bearing is crucial initially to allow the injured muscle or ligament to heal without further tearing. Using crutches or immobilization may be necessary.

Ice: Applying ice helps minimize swelling and inflammation. Ice should be used for 10-20 minutes at a time, multiple times per day during the initial injury phase. Don’t apply ice directly to bare skin.

Compression: Wrapping the injured area with an elastic bandage compresses swelling while providing support.

Elevation: Keeping the injured joint or muscle elevated above heart level assists with gravity drainage of swelling.

Soft tissue work: Gentle massage and myofascial release techniques relax muscles in spasm to take pressure off the injury site. This also improves blood flow.

Joint mobilization: Specific, low-force joint movement helps reduce stiffness and restore normal mobility as healing allows. This prevents compensatory strain.

Taping/bracing: Stabilizing an unstable joint with athletic tape or a brace limits painful motion while still allowing gentle movement. Braces also provide muscle support.

Adjustments: Gentle chiropractic adjustments alleviate joint dysfunction and neural tension caused by compensatory movement patterns. This facilitates muscle relaxation.

Stretching: As pain subsides, gentle stretches lengthen tight muscles resulting from an injury. Stretches should be gradual and progressive.

Exercises: Low-impact exercises strengthen the area and improve mobility, coordination and balance. Weight training may be incorporated later in recovery.

Functional training: Chiropractors help patients progress back to functional activities through simulating movements required for their sports or job duties. This builds confidence.

Nutrition: Recommendations may include omega-3s and antioxidants to control inflammation as well as protein to rebuild injured tissues.

As healing progresses, treatment shifts from passive modalities like ice and rest to active rehab through stretching, exercises and activity modification. Timeframes and progression will vary based on the severity of the injury and patient factors. Patience and avoiding re-injury are vital for full recovery.


In summary, sprains and strains take a toll both physically and mentally given their prevalence, especially among recreational athletes. Understanding the classification of these injuries along with smart treatment choices can significantly impact the healing timeline and outcome. Seeking prompt chiropractic care integrates multiple modalities to control pain, reduce swelling, improve mobility and restore lasting function. With an appropriate treatment plan tailored to their specific injury, most patients recover fully from sprains and strains under chiropractic care.

This article is copyrighted by Blogging Chiropractors for its Doctor of Chiropractic members and may not be copied or duplicated in any manner including printed or electronic media, regardless of whether for a fee or gratis without the prior written permission of Blogging Chiropractors.

Dr. Polly Hediger

Dr. Polly Hediger grew up in a small town in southern Illinois, called Highland. After graduating in the top 10 of her high school class, she attended Southwestern Illinois College for general studies. In 1998, Dr. Hediger entered the accelerated science program at Logan College of Chiropractic in Missouri. Through her coursework there she completed her Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.) and graduated with a Doctorate of Chiropractic (D.C.).

Dr. Polly Hediger

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