How do you know the difference between a sprain and a strain?

What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?  See our explanations. Mansong Suttakarn/Shutterstock

Sprain or strain?

You trip and hurt your ankle. Oh! She’s swollen, throbbing…it’s clearly a sprain. Or maybe a sprain? What is the difference between the two?

If you’re constantly confusing sprains with strains, you’re not alone.

“It’s easy to confuse sprains with strains because in both cases the soft tissues around the joints are overstretched, sometimes to the point of tearing,” says Dr.r Gbolahan Okubadejo, an orthopedic spine surgeon in New York City.

While sprains and strains look similar, there are slight differences between them that require slightly different treatment, whether prescribed by your doctor, an osteopath, or at home.

We talked to doctors and experts to understand the basic differences between sprains and strains, what they are, how they’re treated, and how to prevent them from happening again.

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What is a strain?

Strains are injuries to muscles and tendons, says Dr.r Okubadejo. “A strain occurs when the muscles or tendons, which connect the muscles to the bones, are overstretched or torn.”

If the muscle is too tight, which can happen during vigorous exercise or when you haven’t warmed up enough before a workout, it can tear and cause strain.

Similarly, tendons, bands of fibrous tissue that connect muscle to bone, can also be overstretched or torn.

A muscle strain is also known as a muscle strain or muscle strain, according to D.r Marvin Singh, owner of Precisione Clinic in San Diego, California.
“It occurs when a muscle is overused, misused, or overstretched, and it affects the muscles or tendons.”

Strains can occur in different places on the body, but are most common in the lower back and the hamstring muscle in the back of the leg.

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What is a sprain?

If you’ve ever sprained your ankle and fallen down the sidewalk the wrong way, you’ve sprained it.

“A sprain occurs when ligaments, the tissues that hold bones together, are overstretched or torn,” says Dr.r Okubadejo.

It can affect an ankle, a knee or a wrist, but also a thumb or the back. No matter the joint, when the ligaments are twisted, torn, or overstretched, it is a sprain.

While both sprains and strains can cause pain and swelling, sprains can burst blood vessels and cause bruising.

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Symptoms of a sprain and strain

Both injuries are accompanied by pain, swelling, and redness, but there are some important differences, according to the D.r Okubadejo.

“Usually with a sprain, the area around the joint is bruised.” In the case of a strain, instead, you could have muscle cramps, to explain the Dr Singh. “The symptoms of a sprain and a strain can be similar. One of the biggest differences is that a strain can cause muscle spasms around the affected muscle.”

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What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?  See our explanations.

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How do doctors diagnose a sprain or strain?

You may be tempted to ignore the injury or wait to see if you feel better. For less serious injuries, the Dr Okubadejo believes that people can heal themselves. A mild strain will repair itself in about two to four weeks, he says; if you have severe pain or if you don’t feel much better after a few days, it’s time to see a doctor.

“Typically, sprains and strains require a diagnosis by a medical professional,” he adds. You will have a brief physical exam and may order an X-ray or MRI.

“A sprain or strain is often accompanied by pain and tenderness, as well as swelling and limitation of movement. The injured person sometimes hears a telltale ‘pop’, a sign of a torn ligament leading to a sprain,” she explains.

Your doctor will usually diagnose a sprain or strain by listening to you talk about how you were injured and through a physical exam, says Dr.r Tomas Pevny, an orthopedic surgeon at ValleyOrtho in Glenwood Springs, Colo. “If in doubt, imaging, most often an MRI, will help.”

Examining your injury will identify common symptoms such as bruising, cramping, swelling, and mobility problems; may include an X-ray to rule out broken bones, says Dr.r Rahul Shah, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Vineland, New Jersey.

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What treatment is used for a sprain or strain?

If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, you’re probably familiar with the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) technique. This technique really helps in treating sprains and strains.

“Minor sprains and strains are generally treated using the same method,” says Dr.r Cha. This is how she can help you:


Do not step on the wound and give it time to heal.

“Don’t put weight on the sprain or strain, as rest is necessary for the tissues to repair themselves,” says Dr.r Okubadejo.

The icecream

Putting ice on the wound can relieve swelling.

the compression

Wrapping the injury with a compression bandage will help reduce swelling, according to the D.r Okubadejo, who also recommends taking over-the-counter pain relievers.


Grab a book or the remote control and get comfortable on the couch for a while. Elevating your injury will also help reduce swelling, says D.r Pevny, which will help improve your condition.

consulting a doctor

It is important to see your doctor if you have pain, to tell the Dr Singh. This sprain or strain could actually be something much more serious, like a broken bone.

If there is noticeable swelling or numbness, make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, adds the Dr Okubadejo.

A doctor may prescribe stronger medications, put a splint on the injured area, and prescribe a walking boot or crutches for a period of time.


We rarely operate on a sprain. “There are different degrees of tension,” says Dr.r Pevni. A mild strain is an injury that affects a muscle, but remains stable. It will heal on its own with rest, ice, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and possibly physical therapy.”

However, a torn muscle or chronic sprains may require surgery, adds the D.r Pevni.

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Who is most at risk for strains and sprains?

Being active is good for your health, but it comes with risks, such as sprains and strains, explains Dr.D Hélène Bertrand, physician in Vancouver, research scientist and clinical professor at the University of British Columbia.

Whether you’re playing tennis, running outdoors, playing basketball, or hiking bumpy trails, you’re just as likely to get a sprain as a strain, says Dr.D Bertrand, who is also a co-founder of QR Cream, a pain relief company.

And there’s no way of knowing if it’s going to twist or kink, according to the D.r Okubadejo. “Most people are just as likely to have a sprain as a strain.”

He explains that these injuries often occur in people with weaker muscles and joints. However, those who are less athletic might even be slightly more likely to have an accident.

“People who are overweight, older, or physically unfit tend to be at higher risk for a sprain or strain because their muscles and joints are less able to support body movement,” adds Dr.r Okubadejo.

Another culprit: shoes that don’t fit well. “Sprains and strains can sometimes occur when a person wears shoes that are too big,” she said. And even if you’re in excellent shape, you could still provoke fate if you push your body to its limits without warming up first.

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Prevent sprains and strains

Since you can’t predict the twists and turns life will throw at you (accidents happen to everyone), consider one of these options to minimize your future risk of sprains and strains:

heat and recover

When planning to train, always set aside time for warm-up and cool-down periods.

They will help to gently stretch your muscles and strengthen them, as well as reduce the risk of pushing your body beyond its limits.

One of the best ways to prevent sprains and strains is to stretch well, not overexert yourself, and know your limits. It’s also important to wear quality gear, wear the right shoes, and take breaks during a workout to avoid overdoing it, says Dr.r Singh.

To stay fit

Taking care of your body through a healthy diet and regular exercise may help, according to Dr.r Okubadejo, who also recommends wearing proper footwear.

“Keeping your body fit and at a healthy weight is extremely important when it comes to preventing sprains and strains,” he says. Exercising often can help strengthen your ligaments, tendons, and muscles so they’re less likely to be overstretched or torn. Make sure your shoes fit you well. Also, if you’ve ever had a sprain or strain, do strengthening exercises every day.”

Use an elastic band

As in many other aspects of life, prevention is the best cure. If you’re a runner and have had a sprain or strain in the past, consider wearing an elastic band over the affected joint, says Dr.D Bertrand.

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