Authored by Revere Health

Sprains and Strains: What’s the Difference?

June 14, 2017 | Family Medicine

Sprains and strains are common and relatively similar injuries when looking at their signs and symptoms, but they differ in the parts of your body they affect. A sprain refers to the stretching or tearing of ligaments, the bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together in the joint. The ankle is the most common location for a sprain.

A strain, on the other hand, is a stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon rather than a ligament. A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscles with bones. The most common locations for sprains include the lower back and the hamstring muscle in the back of the thigh.


Symptoms vary with each particular injury based on the severity involved. Sprain symptoms include:


  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Limited ability to move the affected joint
  • A popping sound that’s heard at the time of the injury


Strain symptoms can include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Limited ability to move the affected muscle

In mild cases, these injuries can be treated at home. If you can’t walk more than four steps without pain, can’t move the affected joint or have numbness anywhere in the injured area, however, you should see your doctor.

Causes and Risk Factors

A sprain occurs when a ligament is overextended or torn as it’s being severely stressed. Sprains can occur on some of the following areas, under the following circumstances:

  • Ankle: Walking or exercising on an uneven surface
  • Knee: Pivoting during activity
  • Wrist: Landing on an outstretched hand after a fall
  • Thumb: Overextension from racquet sports like tennis, or skiing injury

Strains, on the other hand, are broken up into two categories: acute strains and chronic strains. Acute strains refer to muscles becoming strained, pulled or possibly torn after it stretches unusually far or abruptly.

Examples include:

  • Slipping on ice
  • Running, jumping or throwing
  • Lifting a heavy object, or being in an awkward position

A chronic strain results from prolonged, repetitive movements of a muscle, which can sometimes occur on the job. It can also occur during sports like gymnastics, tennis, rowing and golf.

Factors that can contribute to both sprains and strains include:

  • Poor conditioning: This can leave the muscles weak and more susceptible to injury.
  • Fatigue: Tired muscles provide less support for joints.
  • Improper warm-up: Warming up correctly loosens the muscles and increases range of motion for the joints, lowering the risk of trauma and tears.
  • Environment: Slippery or uneven surfaces can increase injury risk.
  • Poor equipment: Equipment that fits poorly, or badly maintained footwear, can contribute to higher risk.

Treatment and Prevention Methods

Depending on the joint involved and the severity of the injury, treatment for strains and sprains include:

  • Medications: Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain medications and simple self-care measures.
  • Therapy: For mild cases of sprains or strains, apply ice to the area immediately to reduce swelling. For more serious cases, your doctor may immobilize the area with a brace or a splint.
  • Surgery: In some more serious cases, such as a torn ligament or ruptured muscle, surgery might be considered as a treatment option.

For immediate self care for a sprain or strain, the RICE approach can be effective:

  • Rest: Avoid activities that cause pain, swelling or discomfort.
  • Ice: Ice immediately, for up to 15 to 20 minutes each time. Repeat every two to three hours.
  • Compression: For help with swelling, compress the area with an elastic bandage until swelling goes down.
  • Elevation: Also to help reduce swelling, elevate the injured area above the level of the heart.

Your doctor can also be of assistance with the RICE method.

Prevention methods for strains and sprains include regular stretching and strengthening exercises. Try to stay in shape for your sport, and engage in regular conditioning if you have a physically demanding occupation or hobby.

To learn about ways to prevent strains and sprains, or if you’ve suffered one of these injuries, speak to your doctor, who can best recommend a course of action specific to your case.


Revere Health Orem Family Medicine is devoted to comprehensive healthcare for patients of all ages. Our commitment is to provide thorough and timely health care for the entire family throughout all stages of life. We revere our patients’ health above all else and work together to help them live better.



“Sprains and strains.” The Mayo Clinic.

“Sprains and Strains.” Medline Plus.


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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.