Russ says he plays softball on weekends to get fit. His doctor says he should be getting fit first to protect himself from injury.

As a weekend warrior, Russ is one of many Americans who are vulnerable to sprains, strains and other soft tissue injuries. Others at risk include runners who over train; children taking risks on skateboards or bicycles; young athletes being pushed by overly competitive coaches; and older persons with a deteriorating sense of balance.

A sprain involves stretching or tearing of ligaments, the tough bands of tissue that connect one bone to another. A strain involves stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon, the tissue that attaches muscle to bone.

For either a sprain or a strain, symptoms usually include pain and swelling. And, at least with sprains, the degree of pain and swelling is usually a good indication of the severity of the injury.

Whether you go to a doctor or not, immediate self care requires RICE — an acronym for rest, ice, compression and elevation.

¦ REST is relative rather than absolute. Even with a severely sprained ankle, you can get regular exercise on an exercise bike or rowing machine.

¦ ICE is a crucial part of treatment for any injury that brings inflammation and swelling. Use an ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes at a time every two to three hours to slow the bleeding and reduce the inflammation.

¦ COMPRESSION with an elastic bandage can help stop or reduce swelling. Begin wrapping at the point of the injury that’s farthest from the heart and don’t wrap tightly enough to hinder circulation. Loosen the bandage any time pain increases or the area becomes numb.

¦ ELEVATION of the injured area above the level of the heart, particularly at night, also helps reduce swelling by allowing excess fluid to drain.

Once the swelling starts to go down, there should be steady signs of improvement. If the injury is at all severe, however, you should see a doctor, if for no other reason than to rule out a fracture or structural damage to the joint.

A strain can range from a partial or complete rupture of a tendon (such as the Achilles), to an overstretched or slightly torn muscle. The former will be extremely painful and disabling; the latter may produce pain only with certain activities and show no noticeable swelling.

A pulled or overstretched muscle can occur as a result of a fall or even an awkward landing. Other scenarios include excessive muscle contraction during a sprint; an explosive motion in tennis or volleyball; or heavy lifting with poor form.

Runners are vulnerable to quadriceps strains as a result of muscle imbalance coupled with overuse.

A sprain typically occurs because of direct or indirect trauma that puts extreme stress on the ligaments holding a joint together. This may be a blow suffered in an automobile accident; a collision on the soccer field; a fall on the ice, or an awkward landing from a jump.

A mild sprain involves overstretching or slightly tearing the ligaments without affecting the stability of the joint. While there may be some swelling and bruising, the person is usually able to put weight on the affected joint.

In a moderate sprain, the ligament is torn but does not rupture completely. The joint is usually very painful, swollen, discolored and difficult to move.

A severe sprain involves a complete tear or rupture of one or more ligaments, making it impossible for the person to move the joint normally or put weight on it. This is a severe injury that usually requires immobilization in a cast or brace. Surgery may be needed to repair the ligaments.

Emergency medical attention is required any time there is a popping sound, inability to bear weight because of instability or pain or any other sign of a severe sprain. Long-term damage to the joint and its tissues can occur as a result of inadequate or delayed treatment.

In addition to acting promptly to treat sprains and strains, regardless of severity, it’s important to practice good prevention both before and after injury. Get fit before you play a sport. Learn and follow good technique. Don’t push your muscles past the point of fatigue. Warm up, cool down and stretch.

Taping and bracing a joint may offer short-term protection during recovery from an injury, but the best protection comes from having strong, well-conditioned muscles — what some call a “muscle brace.”

Derek Butler is a Licensed Athletic Trainer/Clinical Exercise Physiologist at Aurora Medical Group-Bay Area.