East Asian Medicine for Sprains and Strains

A few definitions are in order before discussing an East Asian medical approach to sprains and strains. First of all, what are they, and what are the differences between them? A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament, the connective tissue between bones at joints (1). A strain is a stretched or torn tendon (tendons connect muscles to bones), or a stretched or torn muscle (2). Most of the time, these kinds of injuries are characterized by sudden activities that disrupt protective body mechanics; in a reactive attempt to correct the loss of balance or application of force, the person with either of the above types of injuries has usually had an accident that resulted in a stretch or tear of the relevant structure. The most affected areas are the ankles, knees, and wrists (3). In acupuncture practice, I see ankle sprains far more often than any other type of sprain or strain. Depending of the severity of symptoms, it is recommended that the injured party see a physician as soon as possible to rule out or confirm the possibility of broken bones, fractures, or other serious conditions. During all aspects of recovery, acupuncture and moxibustion can be helpful to reduce swelling and the need for medication. These techniques can also help to speed the healing process.

Commonly, people want to know what they can do at home to help themselves get back to the activity level they were used to before the injury occurred. A question that is often asked is, “Should we be using ice or heat?” on the injured area. According to Drs. Roizen and Oz, of the You: series of (Western) medical reference books, it is best to ice for 48 hours following an injury to reduce swelling and pain, although the use of ice after 48 hours is for the generation of heat after the ice is taken away (4). They further suggest the use of heat to warm the muscle for increased range of motion as healing commences (5). In seeming contrast, Masakazu Ikeda sensei reports the use of heat during the phases of recovery to discharge heat from the area, employing cooling only if the area of injury is very hot (6). When we think about it, the goals of these two apparently opposite approaches is to clear excessive, pathogenic heat and to replace that heat with a healing form and amount of heat. They are really both saying the same thing. So, the advice to those who insist on continuing to use ice long after the initial phase of injury, is that they please do so in strict moderation with the intention of generating heat to actually heal the sprain or strain. To prevent these kinds of injuries from taking place in the future, there are many exercises that can be done to strengthen the ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles. If a person is prone to such problems, it is of paramount importance to incorporate strengthening exercises on a regular basis.  

(1-3). “Health Topics – Questions and Answers about Sprains and Strains.” National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.  http://www.niams.nih.gov/hi/topics/strain_sprain/strain_sprain.htm(4-5). Roizen, Michael, and Oz, Mehmet. You: The Owner’s Manual.

New York: Harper Collins Resource, 2005. P. 112. (6). Ikeda Masakazu. The Practice of Japanese Acupuncture and Moxibustion, trans. Edward Obaidey.  Seattle: Eastland Press, 2005. pp.116-117.

Kerri Winston, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist with a practice in Atlanta, Georgia's Buckhead area. If you are interested in learning more about how acupuncture can help you or your loved ones, please call 404-949-0550 or send email to kerri@acuworks.net.