Strain Versus Sprain: What’s The Difference?

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

A sprain and strain are both very common injuries. Although anyone can develop either injury, risk factors include having a prior strain or sprain and improper warm-up before exercise. According to The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, people who are in poor physical shape or overweight are at an increased risk of both sprains and strains. Although strains and sprains may have some similarities, they are two different forms of injury.

What Is A Strain?

In order to understand the difference between a strain and a sprain it’s important to first understand the definition of each. A strain is typically an injury to the muscle. A tendon, which connects the muscle to the bone, can also become strained. In many cases, chronic strains can be caused by overuse of the muscle or tendon. For example, repetitive movements in a sport, such as running or tennis can lead to a strain. Acute strains can also occur from trauma, such as a blow to the muscle or tendon.

[Related: Should You Stretch Before Or After You Exercise?]

According to The University of Rochester Medical Center, common strains include hamstring strains and back strains. Symptoms include pain, inflammation and swelling. Muscle weakness and muscle spasms may also occur depending on the severity of the strain.

What Is A Sprain?

Ligaments connect bones to other bones, and a sprain is an injury to a ligament. Sprains are often a result of trauma to the ligament from twisting, falls or force near a joint, which overstretches the ligament. The most common location of a sprain is the ankle, but sprains to the knee, wrist and thumb also occur. Although sprains are very common among athletes and people who participate in sports, everyday activities also lead to sprains. For instance, tripping and landing the wrong way, or twisting the knee or ankle are common causes of sprains.

Sprains are usually classified as mild, moderate or severe. The extent and severity of symptoms often depends on the classification of the sprain. In some cases, a popping sound is heard in the joint as the injury occurs. Pain is often the first symptom of a sprain. Swelling and bruising of the affected area is also common. In a severe sprain, it is possible for the ligament to separate from the bone.

[Related: 10 Frequent Causes Of Knee Swelling]

Strain Versus Sprain

Sprains and strains may have some similar symptoms, but they are not the same thing. There are a few different ways to distinguish between the two injuries. The location of the pain and injury is one way to tell the difference between a strain versus sprain. If the pain is in the muscle, it is usually a strain. If the injury and pain are not in the muscle, but near a joint, it is more likely to be a sprain.

The mechanism of the injury also provides clues to whether it is a sprain or strain. For example, a fall that causes you to land on an outstretched limb or rolling of the ankle is most often a sprain. Participating in vigorous exercise or sports without warming up, may lead to an overstretched muscle, which is a strain. If a strain or sprain is suspected, a physical exam and an X-ray may be needed in order to make an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment And Prevention

Treatment for both types of injuries may vary depending on severity. Mild sprains and strains can often be treated with the R.I.C.E. method, which includes the following:

  • Rest: Both sprains and strains will require you to restrict activities which cause pain. Talk to your doctor about when you should resume normal activities.
  • Ice: Ice should be applied as soon as possible after the initial injury. Apply ice to the injury for up to 20 minutes at a time and repeat several times a day, according to Mayo Clinic. Ice will help reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Compression: Wrap the area with an elastic bandage in order to compress it. Compression will help reduce swelling and pain.
  • Elevation: Elevating the injured area will help reduce fluid and swelling. When possible, elevate the area above the level of the heart.

In addition to the R.I.C.E. approach, over-the-counter pain medication may help ease discomfort. In more severe sprain or strains, immobilization and physical therapy may be needed.

There are ways to reduce your risk of both sprains and strains. Always wear shoes that fit well and provide support for the activity you are participating in. Warm-up before engaging in sports or any type of exercise. Stretching daily also helps reduce your risk.

[Related: 10 Dynamic Warm Up Exercises]

Although many sprains are strains are mild and pain subsides in a few days, there are times when you should see your doctor. If you are unable to move the joint, it could indicate a dislocation or fracture. Also, if pain is severe or persists for several days, it may be a more serious injury and requires medical attention. You should also see your doctor if you have numbness at or near the injury site.


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