Sprain vs. Strain: What’s the Difference?

Sprains vs. strains. Although the two terms sound very similar and often exhibit similar symptoms, sprains and strains actually involve different parts of the body. It is important to differentiate between the two in order for an individual to receive the proper treatment, thus allowing them to heal as quickly as possible.


A strain is said to occur when an individual tears either a tendon or a muscle. Tendons are the tough, fibrous tissues that connect muscles to adjacent bones. Common areas for strains are the hamstrings, located on the back of the upper thigh, as well as the lumbar (lower back) region. Other common areas for strains are the calf muscles, the quad muscles located on the front of the thigh, the shoulders, and the groin.

When a person experiences a strain they have enough pain in the affected area to limit their ability to function normally. Many patients report swelling and muscle spasms in the affected area, further decreasing their level of function. Minor strains can be treated at home using the RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) method of treatment.

Acute Strains – An acute strain typically occurs from a specific movement such as a slip or fall, lifting a heavy object from an awkward position, or some type of athletic movement such as throwing, jumping, or running.

Chronic Strains – Chronic strains occur over time, usually from repetitive motions often associated with work activities or sports activities such as golf, tennis, or gymnastics.

Chronic strains can be tough to beat without professional treatment, especially if they are from work-related activities because individuals simply cannot stop performing their required tasks at work. Either way, whether a strain is acute or chronic, an individual should seek immediate medical attention if they cannot walk more than four steps without significant pain and/or they have any numbness in the affected area.


A sprain is the stretching or tearing of a ligament, which is the tough fibrous material that connects two bones together, thus forming a joint. The most common area to incur a sprain is the ankle. Sprains typically occur from sudden movements that cause excess stress on a joint. Some examples include pivoting during an athletic activity and spraining the knee joint, injuring the ankle joint by trying to walk on uneven surfaces, or injuring a wrist, shoulder or ankle joint after a fall. The symptoms of a sprain are similar to the symptoms of a strain. However, one tell-tale sign that an individual has experienced a ligament sprain rather than a strain, is if they hear or feel a popping of their joint during the moment of injury.

Minor sprains can also be treated using the RICE method, but a serious sprain requires professional medical treatment. In some cases, a sprain is serious enough that surgery is needed to repair the torn tissue.


If an individual has enough pain and limited movement to seek professional care, their strain or sprain will be graded on a scale from one to three, with one being the least serious and three defining the most serious level of injury. A doctor will likely still recommend RICE treatment for a sprain or strain at level one. For level two, they may recommend treatments such as immobilization of the affected area, crutches, and eventually physical therapy. For a level three, surgery may be required to repair torn tissue along with a recovery period that eventually includes a series of physical therapy treatments.

Physical Therapy

Sometimes a patient requires physical therapy to restore their former level of activity. PTs can help relieve lingering pain after surgery, as well as increase flexibility and restore full range of motion through stretching exercises. Eventually, when a patient is ready, a physical therapist can introduce strengthening exercises designed to help patients regain their former level of health in the affected area. If there are any impediments to restoring full function, such as a muscle imbalance or other issue, a physical therapist will note it during their holistic patient evaluation and address it as well.

If you need help regaining your former level of activity after a sprain or strain, please contact Cawley Rehab at 570-208-2787 or email us at: cawleyptfrank@@gmail.com.

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Written by Dr. Jesse Yurko DPT