The most common soft tissues injured are muscles, tendons, and ligaments. These injuries often occur during sports and exercise activities, but sometimes simple everyday activities can cause an injury.
Sprains, strains, and contusions, as well as tendinitis and bursitis, are common soft-tissue injuries. Even with appropriate treatment, these injuries may require a prolonged amount of time to heal.
Soft-tissue injuries fall into two basic categories: acute injuries and overuse injuries.
Acute soft-tissue injuries vary in type and severity. When an acute injury occurs, initial treatment with the RICE protocol is usually very effective. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
A sprain is a stretch and/or tear of a ligament, a strong band of connective tissue that connect the end of one bone with another. Ligaments stabilize and support the body's joints. For example, ligaments in the knee connect the thighbone with the shinbone, enabling people to walk and run.
The areas of your body that are most vulnerable to sprains are your ankles, knees, and wrists. A sprained ankle can occur when your foot turns inward, placing extreme tension on the ligaments of your outer ankle. A sprained knee can be the result of a sudden twist, and a wrist sprain can occur when falling on an outstretched hand.
Sprains are classified by severity:
While the intensity varies, pain, bruising, swelling, and inflammation are common to all three categories of sprains. Treatment for mild sprains includes RICE and sometimes physical therapy exercises. Moderate sprains often require a period of bracing. The most severe sprains may require surgery to repair torn ligaments.
A strain is an injury to a muscle and/or tendons. Tendons are fibrous cords of tissue that attach muscles to the bone. Strains often occur in your foot, leg (typically the hamstring) or back.
Similar to sprains, a strain may be a simple stretch in your muscle or tendon, or it may be a partial or complete tear in the muscle-and-tendon combination. Typical symptoms of a strain include pain, muscle spasm, muscle weakness, swelling, inflammation, and cramping.
Soccer, football, hockey, boxing, wrestling and other contact sports put athletes at risk for strains, as do sports that feature quick starts, such as hurdling, long jump, and running races. Gymnastics, tennis, rowing, golf and other sports that require extensive gripping, have a high incidence of hand sprains. Elbow strains frequently occur in racquet, throwing, and contact sports.
The recommended treatment for a strain is the same as for a sprain: rest, ice, compression and elevation. This should be followed by simple exercises to relieve pain and restore mobility. Surgery may be required for a more serious tear.
A contusion is a bruise caused by a direct blow or repeated blows, crushing underlying muscle fibers and connective tissue without breaking the skin. A contusion can result from falling or jamming the body against a hard surface. The discoloration of the skin is caused by blood pooling around the injury.
Most contusions are mild and respond well with the RICE protocol. If symptoms persist, medical care should be sought to prevent permanent damage to the soft tissues.
Tendinitis is an inflammation or irritation of a tendon or the covering of a tendon (called a sheath). It is caused by a series of small stresses that repeatedly aggravate the tendon. Symptoms typically include swelling and pain that worsens with activity.
Professional baseball players, swimmers, tennis players, and golfers are susceptible to tendinitis in their shoulder and arms. Soccer and basketball players, runners, and aerobic dancers are prone to tendon inflammation in their legs and feet.
Tendinitis may be treated by rest to eliminate stress, anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, splinting, and exercises to correct muscle imbalance and improve flexibility. Persistent inflammation may cause significant damage to the tendon, which may require surgery.
Bursae, are small, jelly-like sacs that are located throughout the body, including around the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, and heel. They contain a small amount of fluid, and are positioned between bones and soft tissues, acting as cushions to help reduce friction.
Bursitis is inflammation of a bursa. Repeated small stresses and overuse can cause the bursa in the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee or ankle to swell. Many people experience bursitis in association with tendinitis.
Bursitis can usually be relieved by changes in activity and possibly with anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen. If swelling and pain do not respond to these measures, your doctor may recommend removing fluid from the bursa and injecting a corticosteroid medication into the bursa. The steroid medication is an anti-inflammatory drug that is stronger than the medication that can be taken by mouth. Corticosteroid injections usually work well to relieve pain and swelling.
Although surgery is rarely necessary for bursitis, if the bursa becomes infected, an operation to drain the fluid from the bursa may be necessary. In addition, if the bursa remains infected or the bursitis returns after all nonsurgical treatments have been tried, your doctor may recommend removal of the bursa.
Removal (excision) of the bursa can be done using a standard incision (open procedure), or as an arthroscopic procedure with small incisions and surgical instruments. Your doctor will talk with you about the best procedure for your medical needs.
Injuries often occur when people suddenly increase the duration, intensity, or frequency of their activities. Many soft-tissue injuries can be prevented through proper conditioning, training, and equipment. Other prevention tips include:
Whether an injury is acute or due to overuse, if you develops symptoms that persist, contact your doctor.