The Key Difference Between a Sprain and Strain

The terms sprain and strain are often used interchangeably and while they sound similar, there’s a key difference between the injuries. A strain happens when you overstretch a muscle or tendon (think sTrain T=tendon to distinguish from a sprain). Tendons help secure muscle to bone. A sprain happens when you over-stretch connective tissue, like ligaments, which connect bone to bone.

What is a Sprain?

Maybe you tripped while hiking or fell awkwardly off a curb. You may have experienced a sprain. Sprains are caused by a shock that knocks a joint out of position. When this happens, you might feel a pop or a tear in the joint.

There are 3 categories of sprains: mild, moderate, or severe. A mild sprain overstretches the ligament but leaves the joint stable. Meanwhile, a moderate sprain presents with some joint instability and there could be slight tears to the ligament, and a severe sprain is a complete tear of the ligament and an unstable joint. Regardless of the category of your sprain, you’ll likely feel these symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Swelling
  • Bruising

What is a Strain?

Maybe you hurt your back helping a friend move, or your intense games of tennis have left your elbow feeling sore. It could be a strain. Strains are caused by the overuse of a muscle or tendon, and like sprains, fall into the categories of mild, moderate, or severe. A mild strain is a mild disruption of muscle fibers. A moderate strain is a moderate disruption of muscle fibers with some muscle weakness. Lastly, a severe strain could cause muscle rupture or severe disruption to muscle fibers. These symptoms will likely be present when you strain a muscle or ligament:

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasm
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation

What are the Risk Factors for Sprains or Strains?

Your activity level is the biggest risk factor for experiencing a sprain or strain. Weak muscles are also a risk factor for injury. Before you begin any sport or exercise program, be sure to warm up. Warmed-up muscles have a better range of motion and flexibility. Also, be aware of your environment. An icy walkway or cluttered home can increase your risk of sprain or strain. To reduce these risks, pay attention to your environment, and when you can, make sure it is safe and uncluttered.

Can You Prevent Strains or Sprains?

It can be difficult to prevent sprains or strains, but there are things you can do to lower your risk. Make sure you:

  • Stretch regularly
  • Build muscle strength through a conditioning program
  • Wear properly fitting shoes
  • Warm-up and cool down before and after sports or exercise

How are Sprains and Strains Treated?

If you have a mild strain or sprain, the rest, ice, compression and elevate (RICE) technique might help you feel better. If, however, your pain is constant or is unbearable, see a doctor. The doctor will likely x-ray your injury to ensure there are no broken bones. If there is no break, you’ll likely be diagnosed with a sprain or strain.

Along with the RICE technique, physical therapy can play an important role in the treatment of strains or sprains. Physical therapy can help reduce your pain, help you regain strength and range of motion. Your physical therapist can show you how to do targeted exercises or stretches or may use more passive techniques like massage or ultrasound to help get you feeling better.

If you’re struggling with a strain or sprain, physical therapy can help. Our experienced physical therapists will assess your condition and create a personalized treatment plan to help you heal and get back to doing the things you enjoy. Contact Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation today to learn more. Call 570-208-2787 or email us at