What's the Difference Between Sprain and Strain?

bruise on wrist

In everyday life, many people use the terms “strain” and “sprain” interchangeably. There are some key differences between these two conditions that you can learn about, including symptoms and what they affect. Keep reading to learn about the difference between these two injuries.

What Is a Sprain?

A sprain is when someone pulls the ligaments that connect their bones in either too far in a direction they typically move in, or in a direction they rarely move in. The most common sprain occurs when someone pulls the ligaments in their ankle by twisting it in a direction they don’t mean to. For example, when someone steps in a hole unexpectedly and their ankle turns. It’s important to note that a sprain involves no broken bones.

Sprain Symptoms

Sprains have several symptoms you may experience to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the injury. First, you are likely to experience pain, as this is the most common symptom of a sprain. This is because the ligaments attached to your bones signal your nerves that something is wrong, which your brain interprets as pain. Second, you may experience swelling as your body works to heal itself. Finally, you may experience a loss of mobility in the sprained joint. This is because both pain and swelling prevent you from moving the injured area, which can help it heal faster.

Sprain Diagnosis

To diagnose a sprain, doctors rule out other factors and talk to you about the circumstances of your injury. One way they differentiate between a sprain and a broken bone or joint is to request an X-ray of the injured area, just to ensure there aren’t any broken bones. If they can’t tell through a physical assessment and an X-ray, then the doctor might also require a magnetic resonance imaging professional to scan the area and ensure you didn’t break any bones. After concluding that you didn’t break any bones, the doctor tells you if it’s a sprain.

Sprain Treatment

When you have a sprain, doctors treat it using the R.I.C.E. method. This is an acronym that stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Each stage of this treatment is important for healing properly and quickly. Rest gives the joint time to heal, ice reduces the swelling in the joint (as does compression), and elevation keeps the swelling down and allows your injury to heal quickly and correctly.

What Is a Strain?

A strain is like a sprain, with the exception that muscles and tendons are the major parts of the body affected by a strain, rather than the ligaments that connect bones. Tendons connect your muscles to bones, while muscles allow people and animals to move by expanding, stretching, and contracting. Strains are when you pull muscles too far in a direction they can move in, or when you move your muscles in a direction they don’t usually go in.

Strain Symptoms

The symptoms of a strain are almost the same as the symptoms of a sprain. Primarily, you may feel pain in the affected area when you have a strain. You can also experience both a limited range of motion around an affected area and swelling or bruising as your body works to heal itself from the injury you experience. One different symptom you may experience with a strain is muscle spasms. Muscle spasms and muscle cramps are involuntary contractions of your muscles that can cause some pain. They can affect individual muscles, muscle groups, or hollow organs such as bladders.

Strain Diagnosis

The diagnosis of a strain is like a diagnosis process for a sprain. When you enter the doctor’s care, they may ask you about the cause of the injury, then perform scans using X-rays and MRIs to determine whether you broke any of your bones. Once they ensure you didn’t break any of your bones, they can diagnose whether it’s a sprain or strain by identifying the area of your pain. If your injury isn’t near a joint, it’s most likely a strain. If your injury is near a joint, it could be a sprain or a strain.

Strain Treatment

Doctors also use the R.I.C.E. method to treat strains. When treating strains, doctors may encourage you to elevate the injury above the level of your heart. This allows you to reduce swelling, which can promote healing for your injury. If you injure your legs or torso, you may rest in bed to elevate the area above your heart. If you can’t elevate your injury above your heart, you can also elevate it to parallel with the ground to reduce swelling.

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

The primary difference between a sprain and a strain is the area they affect. Sprains always affect ligaments and joints, while strains can affect any muscles or muscle groups. This means that strains can occur all over your body, even away from your joints, such as in your abdomen, or on either side of your back. Other than that, the only difference is that you may experience muscle spasms as part of a strain because of the overuse of your muscles.

How to Tell the Difference

The best way to determine whether you have a strain or sprain, or another injury, is to get a diagnosis from a medical provider. They can use their expertise, experience, education, and tools to determine where your injury is, what your injury affects, and whether they can rule out other injuries such as broken bones. It may be difficult to tell if your injury is a strain or sprain only by the symptoms since they’re so similar.

Now that we’ve described the difference between strains and sprains, we’re happy to help you with setting up an appointment for our services. At Orthopedic Specialists of North Texas, we provide medical services for a variety of injuries related to muscles and joints. To learn more about our services, contact us today. We’re here to help you.


Bruise by Sheep purple is licensed with CC BY 2.0