strain or sprain
Sports / Orthopedic

Is it a Strain or Sprain?

Jan 2 2018
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Learn how to tell the difference between a strain and sprain

Many of the symptoms of a joint sprain and a joint strain are the same. So how do you tell the difference between the two common conditions?

Because these injuries are so similar, people often confuse a strain for a sprain, and vice versa.  In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably, which is incorrect. Here is how to tell the difference between a strain and a sprain.

A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament, the band of connective tissues that joins the end of one bone with another. Areas of the body most vulnerable to sprains are your ankles, knees and wrists. Sprains are caused by events such as a fall or a blow to the body that knocks a joint out of position.

A strain is a twist, pull, or tear of a muscle or tendon, a cord of tissue connecting muscle to bone. It is an acute, non-contact injury resulting from overstretching or over-contraction. The most common locations for a muscle strain are the hamstring muscle and the lower back.

Differences and common symptoms of sprains and strains

The biggest differentiator between a strain and a sprain is that a sprain causes bruising around the affected joint. Meanwhile, a person with a strain experiences muscle spasms and loss of strength. All other symptoms are common to both injuries. This includes tenderness and pain around the affected joint, swelling, limited flexibility and difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion.

What causes sprains and strains?

It’s not uncommon to suffer an occasional strain or sprain. However, certain situations make it more likely to injure your joints. These include:

  • Exercise or athletic activities, such as running or jogging
  • Accidents, such as falling or slipping
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Overexerting yourself
  • Sitting or standing in an awkward position
  • Prolonged repetitive motion

Are there strain or sprain risk factors that I should avoid?

Certain activities increase your odds for experiencing a sprain or strain:

  • Using improper equipment that is worn out or ill-fitting can cause injury. Invest in good equipment, especially shoes with good tread. Keep your shoes and other gear well-maintained.
  • Remember to warm up and stretch before doing any physical activity and cool down after. Regular exercise, even just a quick walk, helps keep your body healthy.
  • Avoid reaching the point of exhaustion. When you’re tired, you’re less likely to practice good form. Take regular breaks when sitting or standing for a long time, or practicing repetitive motions. Schedule off days between exercise so your body can rest and heal.
  • Be aware of environmental factors, such as wet, slippery, icy or snow-covered surfaces. Always exercise caution and avoid rushing when possible.

At-home treatment for strains and sprains: RICE method

To help reduce swelling, ease pain and speed healing, you can treat minor injuries with the RICE method at home:

Step 1: Rest: As soon as you’re hurt, stop any activity, and rest as much as possible for the first two days. Avoid putting weight on the injured area for 24 to 48 hours, so your joint has time to heal. Resting can also help prevent further bruising.

Step 2: Ice: Ice is a tried-and-true method for reducing pain, swelling and inflammation. Apply an ice pack or bag of ice (covered with a thin towel or piece or clothing) for 10 minutes. Then, remove it for 10 minutes. Repeat this as often as possible for the first 24 to 48 hours after your injury. If you don’t have an ice pack, you can use a bag of frozen peas.

Step 3: Compression: Wrap the injured area to prevent swelling with an elastic medical bandage (such as an ACE bandage). Avoid making it too tight, which can interrupt blood flow.

Step 4: Elevation: Try to raise the affected joint above the level of your heart to reduce pain, throbbing and internal bleeding. For example, if you have an ankle sprain, you can prop your leg up on pillows while sitting on the sofa.

Diagnosis: When to see your doctor

With mild strains or sprains, most people return to limited activities in two to three days. Moderate injuries may require a week. Severe strains and sprains may need more time to heal. In these cases, physical therapy may be required to help regain strength and range of motion, especially after surgery.

If you have lingering pain or difficulty moving the joint after two weeks, this may be a sign that your injury is something different than a strain or sprain. At this point, you should consider visiting your doctor for a full diagnosis to learn more about your potential strain or sprain.

We recommend scheduling a doctor’s appointment if:

  • You have difficulty walking or standing
  • You can’t move or flex the affected joint
  • You have a feeling of numbness or tingling around the joint

After a physical exam, your doctor may order an X-ray or an MRI to rule out breaks or fractures. If MRIs or X-rays don’t reveal any breaks or injuries to the bone, your doctor will most likely diagnose that injury as a sprain or strain.

In the case of a more severe strain or sprain, you may require surgery to repair damaged or torn ligaments, tendons or muscles.

If you need a primary care physician to diagnose your strain, sprain or other conditions, the Mercy Health team is here for you. Call 513-952-5000 today to find a physician near you.


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