Orthopedic Specialists

Sprain vs. Strain: Symptoms & Treatments

February 2, 2023

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Sprains and strains are common orthopedic injuries, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, even though the symptoms of a sprain and the symptoms of a strain are similar, there is a difference between a strain and a sprain.

What Is A Sprain?

A sprain is an injury that results from damage to a ligament, which connects one bone to another at the joint. Causes of sprains typically involve overexertion and awkward movements in the joint primarily used in whatever activity you’re doing that caused the injury. For example, a weight lifter might be more prone to a hand sprain or shoulder sprain, while a runner may be more susceptible to a foot sprain or an ankle sprain.

Sprain Injury Symptoms

Symptoms of a sprain can include:

  • Feeling a pop or tear sensation in the joint
    • Common example: rolling your ankle 
  • Joint instability near the injury
  • Joint swelling and joint pain

What Is A Strain?

A strain is an injury that results from the tearing of a tendon, which connects a muscle to a bone. Causes of strains are due to either a muscle being under-utilized or a muscle being overexerted. In both cases, the fibers of the muscle are weakened, causing a rip in the muscle. Hamstring strains and lower back strains are some of the most common locations for muscle strains.

Strain Injury Symptoms

Three degrees of muscle strains can often impact the severity of the symptoms of a strain as well as the treatments required and how long the muscle strain lasts. 

  • First Degree Muscle Strain: There is some tearing or stretching of the muscle tissue, but a full range of mobility is still possible.
  • Second Degree Muscle Strain: Muscle tearing causes limited motion and muscle swelling.
  • Third Degree Muscle Strain: Extensive muscle tearing that either severely limits the muscle's range of motion or even makes motion impossible.

Muscle strain symptoms can include:

  • Muscle swelling and muscle pain
  • Muscle spasms and muscle cramps
  • Muscle weakness and limited range of motion
  • Bruising/discoloration around the injury

Sprain Injury Treatment & Strain Injury Treatment 

Sprain and strain injury recovery can vary widely depending on the severity of the injury. Minor sprains and strains can be treated at home using the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevate) method. If you do not notice improvement after a while, it’s important to see an orthopedic doctor. For more severe sprains and strains, it’s crucial to visit an orthopedic clinic as soon as possible to prevent further damage. In rare cases, orthopedic surgery performed by a specially-trained orthopedic surgeon may be required if the injury is severe or is not improving with nonsurgical treatments such as physical therapy and orthopedic injury supports.

Expert Insight: Strain vs. Sprain  

When figuring out what is the difference between a sprain and a strain, it all boils down to ligaments vs. tendons. Whether you have a sprained elbow or an Achilles tendon strain, professional diagnosis and treatment advice can help your injury heal faster and better. The expert orthopedic doctors, sports medicine specialists, and physical therapists at Orthopedic Specialists are here to get you back to doing the activities you love! Schedule your appointment today. We also offer walk-in sports injury clinics starting at 7:30 a.m. Monday - Friday. 

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