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What's the Difference Between a Sprain and a Strain?

Strains and sprains are two different but very common acute injuries of the soft tissues. These soft tissue parts include muscles, tendons and ligaments. Strains and sprains are very similar, so the terms are commonly confused and often used incorrectly.

One reason as to why these injuries are confused is that they are both acute injuries. Acute injuries occur when a sudden trauma is experienced. Such events may include a blow to the body, a fall, or a severe twist. Since both injuries occur in the same way, they can be easily confused.

So what’s the difference?

The main difference between a sprain and a strain is the type of soft tissue that was affected by the injury.

What is a sprain?

A sprain is when an acute injury has affected a ligament. A sprain can be an over-stretch of a ligament, or in the most severe case, a full tear of the ligament. Depending on the severity, sprains are classified as:

  • Grade 1: This is a mild sprain in which the fibers of the ligament have been stretched to the point of slight damage.
  • Grade 2: This is a moderate sprain in which the ligament has been partially torn. It usually causes the joint to become abnormally loose during certain movements.
  • Grade 3: This is a severe sprain in which the ligament has been completely torn. As a result, the joint is unstable and nonfunctional.

With any sprain, symptoms include pain, swelling and bruising. Naturally, the more severe the sprain, the more severe the symptoms.

Treatment varies with the severity of the sprain as well. For a Grade 1 sprain, all that may be required for healing is rest, ice, compression, elevation and/or physical therapy. Moderate sprains may require the use of a brace to stabilize the ligament so it can heal. A severe sprain in which the ligament has been torn may require surgery to repair the ligament.

Ligaments are located at the end of the bones, and they connect the bones to each other in joints. They are strong bands of connective tissue that stabilize and support the joints. Sprains often occur in the ankles, knees and wrists. For example:

  • Sprained ankles and knees often occur after a sudden twist.
  • Sprained wrists are common when a person falls and lands on his or her hand.

What is a strain?

A strain is when an acute injury has affected a muscle and/or tendon(s). While ligaments connect bone to bone, tendons connect muscle to bone. Just like a sprain, a strain is an over-stretch that can range from mild to moderate to severe. And in the most severe cases of strains, the muscles and/or tendon(s) are completely torn.

The more severe the strain, the more severe the symptoms will be. Symptoms of a strain include:

  • Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Cramping
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasm

One of the most common strains is a hamstring strain, which often occurs while someone is playing a sport. Strains in muscles in the back are also very common.

Sprains and strains

Playing sports that involve quick movement, contact, and pressure on the joints puts people at a greater risk for experiencing sprains and strains. However, anyone can get these types of injuries with a fall, trip, or quick and twisting movement.

For both types of injuries, the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) can be applied for treatment. And in the most severe cases of a torn ligament, muscle or tendon, surgery may be required.