Sprain vs. Strain: What’s the Difference?

Strain vs Sprain: What is the Difference?

Sprains and strains are common musculoskeletal injuries that can occur from a variety of everyday activities. Most commonly, these injuries can occur from repetitive movements during daily tasks or traumatic injury (abrupt movements, athletics, unexpected falls, etc).

Symptoms of both sprains and strains can include pain, swelling, and depending upon severity - bruising. Also, both injuries can result in the decreased available movement range of the affected structures – often limited by pain.  The quick answer is that a sprain occurs with a ligament or joint and a strain is to a muscle or tendon. 

Treatment of Sprains and Strains

There are a few notable differences in the presentation of sprains vs. strains: in some cases, muscle spasms with localized cramping/tenderness can occur after muscular strains. Whereas, in cases of severe ligament sprains – the injured individual may recall hearing an audible ‘pop’ at the time of injury (typically reported with ACL injuries). Conservative treatment for both sprains and strains include RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) to reduce residual discomfort. In the case of more advanced or severe cases, surgical intervention may be required to repair/reconstruct torn ligaments or tendons. Our physical therapist uses many modalities such as medical massage, acupuncture, and medical laser to relieve the pain experienced from a strain and sprain. These modalities also help for quicker recovery time for strains vs sprains.

Image of a Strain and a Sprain in the KneeStrain or Sprain What is the Difference?

What Causes A Sprain?

Sprains and sprains are similar, as both injuries result in stretching or tearing of affected structures. However, the specific soft tissues involved in these injuries differ slightly with strains vs sprains. Sprains occur when there is an over-stretching of ligaments (fibrous bands of connective tissue) that connect bone to bone at a joint. Ligaments provide structural stability and support during functional body movement but can become injured when they are stretched beyond the normal available range of the joint. Although sprains can affect any joint in the body, ankle and knee sprains are frequently sites of injury due to abrupt twisting/pivoting motions. Also, wrist sprains are common following falls on an outstretched hand.

What Causes A Strain?

Strains occur when there is excessive motion beyond the normal available range of a muscle or tendon. Tendons are cords of fibrous connective tissues that attach muscle to bone and help to initiate body motion by creating movement force from the muscle to the bone. There are two main types of strains: acute and chronic. Acute strains occur from a specific event that causes a sudden stretch on the affected muscle group. Acute strains may occur from a variety of activities, such as heavy lifting, abrupt falls with a twisting movement, jumping, or running activities. More specifically, strains of the quad and hamstring muscle groups are fairly common acute lower extremity strains in athletics due to the increased force produced by these large muscle groups during functional movement.

Types Of Strains

Chronic strains often occur from repetitive upper extremity activities – oftentimes related to work-related overhead tasks or athletic requirements. Athletes that are required to do repetitive throwing or swinging motions have increased risk of developing shoulder strains. Specifically, baseball/softball, tennis, golf, and volleyball athletes have the potential to develop this type of injury due to sports-specific functional patterns that consistently stress the same musculature. However, it is important to note that although sprains and strains are common in recreational activities and athletics – the potential risk of injury can be decreased considerably by incorporating a light warm-up, stretching, and foam-rolling before activity.  

Physical Therapy for a Strain or Sprain

Whether you are suffering from back issues, joint pain, or injuries resulting from any type of activity, JOI has 12 physical therapy clinics conveniently located in Jacksonville and Northeast FL who specialize in orthopedic rehab. 

JOI Physical TherapyPhysical Therapy for a Sprain or Strain

If your injury does require physical therapy or surgery, our JOI team has the expertise and technological advances to get you back to your ideal level of function.

By: Drew Heideman, PT, ATC

If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at JOI Rehab for physical therapy, call (904) 858-7045

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