Orthopedic Specialists

Sprain or Strain? There is a difference.

July 7, 2020

People tend to use the words “sprain” and “strain” interchangeably, but they are not the same.

A sprain is an injury to a ligament.  Ligaments are the fibrous tissue that connects bones to bones at the joints.  Ligament injuries involve stretching or tearing of this tissue.

A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon.  It is also a stretch or tear.   Tendons link muscles to the bones.

Sprains typically occur when a person falls, twists, or is hit in a way that forces the body out of its normal position.  Examples of this would be falling and landing on an outstretched arm, sliding into a base, landing on the side of your foot, or twisting a knee with your foot firmly on the ground.  This results in an overstretch or tear of the ligament(s) supporting that joint.  Common strains include ankle sprains and wrist sprains.

Sprains are categorized according to the severity of the injury:
Grade 1 Sprain -  This is a mild sprain causing overstretching or slight tearing of the ligaments with no joint instability.  A mild sprain usually causes minimal pain, swelling, and little or no loss of functional ability.  Bruising is absent or slight and the person is usually able to put weight on the joint.

Grade II Sprain – This is a moderate sprain causing partial tearing of the ligament.  A moderate sprain is characterized by bruising, moderate pain and swelling.  A person with a moderate sprain usually has some difficulty bearing weight on the affected joint and has some loss of motion.  An x-ray or MRI may be needed.

Grade III Sprain – This is a severe sprain resulting in a complete tear or ruptures a ligament.  Pain, swelling, and bruising are usually severe and the patient is unable to put weight on the joint.  An x-ray is usually taken to rule out a broken bone.  This type of sprain often requires immobilization and possible surgery.  It can also increase the risk of an athlete having future muscle sprains in that area.

Strains can be acute or chronic.  An acute strain is caused by trauma or a blow to the body or it can be caused by over-stressing the muscles or improperly lifting heavy objects.   Chronic strains are usually the result of overuse – prolonged, repetitive movement of the muscles and tendons.  Common types of strains include back strain, hamstring strain, and elbow strains.  People with a strain typically experience pain, muscle spasm, and muscle weakness.  They may have swelling, inflammation, and may have some loss of function with a severe strain.  Severe strains that partially or completely tear the muscle can be very painful and disabling.

Strains are also categorized according to the severity of the injury:
Grade I Strain – This is a mild strain with only some muscle fibers being damaged.  Healing usually occurs in two to three weeks.

Grade II Strain – This is a moderate strain with more extensive damage to the muscle fibers but the muscle is not completely ruptured.  Healing generally occurs within three to six weeks.

Grade III Strain -- This is a severe strain with a complete rupture of the muscle.  This typically requires surgical repair of the muscle.  The healing period can be up to three months.

There are many types and severities of sprains and strains.  If you sustain an injury of this type, in your everyday activities or sporting activities, it is always best to have it checked out by a physician if your symptoms do not improve over a short period of time just to insure a proper diagnosis and treatment.  We are just a call away for your piece of mind, is it a sprain or a strain?   515-955-6767

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