As you might guess, these injuries happen most often during exercise and sports. I mean, who hasn't "sprained" their ankle during a basketball game? But it turns out, sprains and strains are often incorrectly used interchangeably. This article will shed some light on the difference between these two very common injuries.


Wrist Injury
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A sprain is simply an injury to a ligament, which is the tough, fibrous tissue that connects bone to bone. It often involves tearing or stretching the tissue beyond its functional capability. This usually occurs when people fall and land on an outstretched arm or on the side of their foot. These actions overstretches or tears the ligament supporting that joint and often feels like a "pop" or a "tear" when the injury occurs.

Some of the most common sprains include ankle and wrist sprains. Signs and symptoms of a sprain include bruising, swelling, loss of functional ability, and pain. These of course are relative to the severity of the sprain. 



A strain is an injury caused by the twisting or pulling of a muscle or tendon. Strains come in two flavors:  acute and chronic. Acute strains result from some sort of trauma, improper lifting of heavy objects, or overstressing of the muscles. Chronic strains result from prolonged, repetitive movement of the muscles and tendons.

Some of the most common strains include back, hamstring, and elbow strains. Signs and symptoms include pain, muscle spasms, localized swelling, cramping, muscle weakness, and inflammation. Depending on the severity of the injury, a strain can be a simple overstretch of the muscle or it can result in a partial or complete tear.

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What's the difference?

Sprains and strains may have some similar symptoms, but they are not the same thing. Here are a couple ways to help differentiate the two:

The location.  Where the pain and injury are located is one way to tell the difference between a sprain and a strain. If you experience pain, achiness, or weakness in the muscle, then it is most likely a strain. If these same symptoms are not felt in the muscle but near a joint, it is more likely to be a sprain.

Mechanism of injury (MOI).  This is how the injury occurred and 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. Engaging 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 of Sprains and Strains

Treatment for both types of injuries varies depending on severity. The RICE method is often the most effective way to treat mild sprains and strains; it includes the following:

Rest.  Both sprains and strains will require you to restrict activities that cause pain. Try to minimize moving that specific area and get lots of sleep. Talk to your doctor about when you should resume normal activities.

Ice.  Ice should be applied as soon as possible after the initial injury. Instead of directly adding a cold pack to the injury, wrap it with a thin cloth or paper towel before applying it. Apply ice for no more than 20 minutes at a time and repeat several times a day. Ice will help reduce inflammation and pain.

Compression.  Compression will also aid in reducing swelling and pain. You can wrap the area with an elastic bandage in order to compress it.  When applying the bandage make sure it is not too tight so as to cause further pain but tight enough to stabilize the joint.

Elevation.  When possible, elevate the area above the level of the heart to help reduce edema. For a sprained ankle for example, place your foot on a few pillows when you go to sleep.  

In addition to the RICE approach, over-the-counter pain medication may help ease discomfort. Note that RICE is only effective to a certain extent. For more severe sprains or strains, immobilization and physical therapy may be needed.

Some ways to reduce risk of both sprains and strains include wearing shoes that fit well and provide support for the activity you are participating in, warming-up before engaging in sports or exercise, and stretching daily.

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Congratulations!  You now know the difference between a sprain and a strain.  Remember, if you believe you have strained or sprained anything, it is always safer to visit your primary care physician as soon as possible. 

WARNING:  This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor.  InfoBarrel and I disclaim any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

Be careful out there!