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Healthcare 101: Is It a Break, a Strain or a Sprain?

What goes up must come down. And unfortunately, our joints bear the brunt of our awkward landings while jumping, running or just walking around.

As joints swell, bruise, and grow increasingly painful, it’s often difficult to determine if you’ve suffered a sprain or fracture.

It can also be tough to know if you should visit an urgent care or go to the emergency room. Here are key facts about sprains and fractures, and how to treat them:


A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon. You might experience cramping, muscle spasms and stiffness.


A fracture is an actual break in one of the bones involved.

Symptoms include limited mobility, tenderness, bruising and swelling.


A sprain occurs when an injury results in ligaments (the tissues that connect bones) getting pulled, stretched, or (in more severe cases) torn.

Like fractures, symptoms of a sprain include limited mobility, tenderness, bruising and swelling. These can be just as painful as fractures and an X-ray is the only true way to know what you have.

How to Treat a Mild Sprain

If you think you have a mild sprain– that is, you can put some weight on the area and move it around a bit — you can see if it improves in a couple of days.

The RICE Method

The RICE Method is the preferred method for treatment of a mild sprain. The letters stand for:

  • R – Rest the injured body part
  • I – Ice the area
  • C – Compress the area with an elastic wrap or bandage
  • E – Elevate the injured body part above your heart whenever possible

If the swelling does not subside and your range of motion does not improve, consult a medical professional.

When to Consider Urgent Care

It can be important to know whether you have a sprain or a fracture. CareSpot locations offer digital X-rays in-house to confirm a diagnosis. If necessary, the injury will be stabilized. A medical professional will help you make a recovery plan or refer you to an orthopedic specialist for further treatment.

When to Go to the Emergency Room

Sometimes you can’t treat the problem yourself or at urgent care. Here’s when you should go to the ER:

  • Anytime there is a compound fracture (i.e. a bone sticking out). Call for help and do not move the patient.
  • If the limb or joint appears misshapen or deformed
  • If there is any possibility of a broken bone in the head, neck or back (do not move the patient).
  • If there is significant bleeding or an open wound near the broken appendage.
  • If the area of concern is cold, numb or turning blue.

If your symptoms don’t seem to require an emergency room visit, stop by an urgent care center near you to determine the nature of your injury and next steps for a treatment plan.

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