Sprain and a Strain: Muscles, Ligaments, and Tendons

By Ehren Allen, Certified Manual Therapist/Physical Therapist

Sprain and a Strain

A sprain and a strain are very common injuries with similar signs and symptoms. So what’s the difference?

The quick answer is strained muscles are tears to a muscle or tendon.  Muscle strains are tears to the fibers of muscles and tendons.  A tear can occur at any part of a muscle or tendon. A tendon is a fibrous tissue that connects a muscle to a bone. Sprains are when a tear occurs to a ligament as opposed to a muscle or tendon.

Diagram showing the difference between a strain and sprain which occur to muscles, ligaments, and tendons. JOI Rehab

Illustration of the difference between a Strain and Sprain

Tendons and Ligaments

Both tendons and ligaments are part of the musculoskeletal system and each serve an important function to the joints and bones. They are both made up of dense, layered collagen fibers which are commonly referred to as fibrous connective tissue. Although these two tissues are mutually exclusive, many people tend to confuse the two.

Tendons are fibrous connective tissues that attach muscle to bone and aid in the movement of bones by transferring force from the muscle to the bone. Essentially, tendons are what allow us to move. An example is the Achilles tendon, which connects the muscles of the calf to the heel bone.

Ligaments are essentially connectors, linking bone to bone and helping stabilize joints. These joints allow for complex and simple motions throughout the body, and ligaments come in different shapes and sizes to aid in support, strength, and stabilization.


A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments. Ligaments are strong connective tissue that attach bone to bone. Ligaments assist in joint stability and both simple and complex motions throughout the body. The most common sprains occur in the ankles, knees, and wrists.


A strain is a stretching or tearing of a tendon or muscle. Tendons are fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bone and aid in bone and joint movement. Strains most often occur in the lower back and hamstring muscles.

Illustration of a muscle strain in the human elbow tendons. JOI Rehab

Muscle Strain in Elbow

Treatment of Strains and Sprains

Both sprains and strains are initially treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation. More severe sprains and strains may require surgery to repair the torn ligament, tendon, or muscle.  Other treatment options are:

Written By: Ehren Allen, Certified Manual Therapist/Physical Therapist

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