Millions of people see a doctor each year for muscle and tendon strains and ligament sprains—injuries to their ankles, wrist, back, knees, and more. Sprains and strains can cause mild or severe pain and restrict mobility, causing employees to miss work and athletes to take time off the field. Many sprains and strains heal on their own with home treatments, while some need physical therapy and, in severe cases, surgery.
While the symptoms and treatments for sprain and strains can appear very similar, these types of injuries are actually very different. Understanding a sprain vs a strain may help you identify your injury, get the proper treatment, and learn how to prevent them from occurring. With knowledge of the injuries and treatment options, recovery can be smooth and successful.
Understanding the Difference between Sprains and Strains
Here are the fundamental differences between sprains vs strains:
A sprain occurs when a ligament, which is a tough, flexible band of tissue connecting bones at a joint, gets stretched or torn. Ligaments stabilize joints and prevent excessive movement. Common areas for sprains include the ankles, wrists, and knees.
Strains, on the other hand, affect muscles or tendons, which are fibrous tissues connecting muscles to bones. A strain happens when a muscle or tendon is stretched beyond its capacity or torn. Common sites for strains include the back, hamstring muscles, and calf muscles.
Common Areas for Sprains vs Strains
The most common sites for sprains are the ankles, especially during activities involving sudden movements, like running or jumping. The wrists are also prone to sprains, often occurring from a fall with outstretched hands or during sports like gymnastics.
Strains frequently occur in the lower back, especially when lifting heavy objects with improper form. Additionally, sports that involve repetitive movements, like tennis or golf, can lead to strains in the muscles involved.
Which is Worse? Sprains or Strains?
Technically speaking, a sprain is not worse than a strain, and vice versa. Both are measured by the severity of the injury and treated accordingly. In some cases, strains can be more incapacitating due to their impact on major muscle groups, while severe sprains can lead to joint instability. In either case, it is essential to seek medical attention if you experience persistent pain or swelling.
Treatment Approaches for Sprains and Strains
If you experience either a strain or a sprain, our doctors recommend that you try the RICE treatment approach at home, soon after you experience any symptoms. The RICE method includes:
Rest: Avoid putting weight on the injured joint to allow it time to heal.
Ice: Apply ice packs to the affected area for 15-20 minutes every few hours during the first 48 hours to reduce swelling.
Compression: Use a compression bandage to support the injured joint and reduce swelling.
Elevation: Elevate the injured limb above heart level to minimize swelling.
If symptoms persist after trying the RICE method, we recommend you make an appointment to see one of our orthopedic specialists who can provide a more in-depth diagnosis and explore doctor-prescribed remedies such as immobilization of the muscle or joint, physical therapy to help restore function and strength, or, in some severe cases, surgery.
Preventing Sprains and Strains
Of course, prevention is always better than treatment when it comes to strains and sprains. Here are some tips to reduce the risk of sprains and strains:
Warm-up and stretch: Prior to physical activities, warm up with light exercises and perform stretching routines to prepare your muscles and ligaments.
Use proper techniques: Whether it is lifting heavy objects or playing sports, use the correct techniques to minimize the strain on your muscles and ligaments.
Wear proper footwear: Choose appropriate footwear that provides adequate support and stability for your activities.
Strengthen muscles: Engage in regular strength-training exercises to strengthen the muscles around your joints, providing extra support.
Take breaks: During repetitive activities, take regular breaks to avoid overuse injuries.
Maintain a healthy weight: Excess weight puts additional strain on joints and muscles, increasing the risk of injury.
If you suffer a sprain or strain, and home remedies do not improve your symptoms and reduce your pain, you can walk in to one of EmergeOrtho’s Dedicated Orthopedic Urgent Care centers for immediate care or make an appointment to see one of our board-certified orthopedic specialists at a time that is convenient for you.