Sprains versus Strains: What’s the Difference?

Although sprains and strains  sound similar and are often used interchangeably, they are two separate conditions that affect the body differently.

A sprain happens when a ligament (the tissue connecting two or more bones) is abnormally stretched or partially torn. The most common sites for sprains to occur would be the ankles, knees, or wrists.

A strain happens when a tendon (tissue connecting the muscle to bone) is abnormally stretched or partially torn. Strains most commonly occur in the neck, shoulders, lower back, and hamstrings. There are two types of strains: an acute (sudden, specific trauma) strain and chronic (prolonged, repetitive trauma) strain.


Signs and Symptoms



  • Pain, swelling, bruising, or discoloration
  • Stiffness
  • Limited mobility of affected joint
  • Possible “popping” sound when extending affected joint
  • Pain, swelling, discoloration, or bruising
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle weakness
  • Cramping
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty moving affected body part


Possible Causes


Acute Strains

  • Falling onto an outstretched hand may sprain the wrist
  • Pivoting during a physical activity and  twisting the knee
  • Overextending the thumb/finger while skiing or playing other sports
  • Walking, jogging, running or exercising on an uneven surface may sprain the ankle
  • Traumatic/forceful impact
  • Overextension and prolonged stress of the muscle
  • Running, jumping and/or throwing
  • Lifting heavy objects in an improper/awkward manner
  • A traumatic injury, like a slip and fall or car accident.


Chronic strains are caused by the repetitive movement (overuse) of a muscle.


Mild sprains and strains can usually be treated at home with “RICE”: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. You’ll want to cease any exercise and avoid putting weight on the affected body part. Applying ice to the injured areas for 20 minutes at a time four to eight times a day will also help. Wrapping the affected area with trainer’s tape or a bandage (ACE wrap) can help reduce swelling, but if it begins to feel numb or if the pain increases, loosen the wrap. Elevating the injured area above chest level with a pillow can also be beneficial. Over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), Aleve (naproxen), or Motrin/Advil (ibuprofen) can help with the pain and swelling. Naproxen or ibuprofen will work better as they also decrease inflammation (as always, check with your doctor to make sure you can take these medications).

After the pain is minimal and tolerable, your doctor will likely suggest exercise and/or physical therapy to help increase the mobility and strength of the affected area.

If the injury is severe enough, such as a torn ligament or ruptured muscle, surgery may be suggested. Our physical therapists and chiropractors help rehabilitate patients with these injuries every day. Our sports medicine doctors at Healthpointe are here to help you with any sprain or strain. Schedule an appointment to treat or learn to best prevent an injury today!

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