04 Jan
Industrial Athlete Part 6: “Strain vs. Sprain”

Whether you’re listening to a sports announcer on ESPN or reviewing industrial OSHA 300 logs, a common phase you’ll come across is “sprains and strains.” These similar-sounding terms refer to a breakdown of soft tissue to the point where performance is degraded. “Sprains” refer to a ligament breakdown. “Strains” refer to a breakdown of muscles and tendons. Together, the category of sprains and strains is responsible for 45 percent of loss-time-incidents in the industrial workplace and fully 85 percent of injuries in the world of amateur and professional sports.   

Total sprain/strain injury percentages have long been established as the most frequent type of injury responsible for decreased performance or loss-time. However, the lack of further inquiry into what percentage of this category is, in fact, a sprain vs. a strain is a missed opportunity.

To fill the gap, we asked several safety/ergonomics managers to review their OSHA logs and separate sprains and strains from other injury types and then to determine what percent of the injuries related solely to strains. In averaging the percentages from multiple companies, we discovered a whopping 78 percent of all injuries labeled “sprain/strain” were, in fact, just strains or a breakdown of muscles and the adjoining tendon. Only 22 percent were related to ligaments.

In sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association reports that strains still account for 60 percent of the total strain/sprain category for injury causation. In a similar fashion, strains are responsible for 65 percent, while sprains make up the remaining 35 percent. It’s a widespread belief that the increase in ligament breakdowns is based on an athlete’s range of motion combined with the extreme postures that result from high flexibility. 

In our next article in the series, we will highlight the two soft tissues (muscles and tendons) that break down, resulting in a strain and how they respond to positive and negative stress. Further, we will explore how these two components work together to create movement by examining the Muscle-Tendon Complex (MTC), and the practices that health professionals and strength coaches can implement to aid in slowing the soft tissue breakdown process. Stay tuned.

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