Sprains + Strains 101: What's the Difference and What to Do

February 7, 2017

So you are back in the fitness game and working out consistently and next thing you know, boom! You go to plant off your foot when doing some side shuffles and trying to catch up the person in you group and you feel it. You aren’t really sure what you did or pulled but you know you did something.


We work to avoid exercise injuries at all cost but they happen. The first step towards dealing with it and recovering is understanding what exactly is going on. Sprains and strains are common orthopedic injuries that share similar signs and symptoms, but involve different parts of your body.


Knowledge is power so let’s up your power level and drop some knowledge on the differences between the two.


A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments — the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together in your joints. The most common location for a sprain is in your ankle.


A strain is a stretching or tearing of muscle or tendon. A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscles to bones. Strains often occur in the lower back and in the hamstring muscle in the back of your thigh.


So briefly, let’s review to ensure understanding the difference:


          Sprain: Injury to ligaments

          Strain: Injury to muscles and tendons


You’d be surprised how many people I’ve met who have confused the two, or simply didn’t know there was even a difference between sprains and strains. You may think it not a big deal in regards to semantics, but in anatomical terms, they are vastly different. Think about it: muscles move joints, but ligaments are the actual joint!


Not all sprains and strains are created equal. Generally in orthopedics, we grade the degree/severity of an injury in three levels and each can mean very different things on the road to recovery:

































A sprain occurs when you overextend or tear a ligament while severely stressing a joint. Sprains often occur in the following circumstances:

  • Ankle — Walking or exercising on an uneven surface

  • Knee — Pivoting during an athletic activity

  • Wrist — Landing on an outstretched hand during a fall

  • Thumb — Overextension when playing racquet sports, such as tennis, even in skiiing



There are two types of strains: acute and chronic.


An acute strain occurs when a muscle becomes strained or pulled — or may even tear — when it stretches unusually far or abruptly in one simple, violent occurrence. We call this macrotrauma, Acute strains often occur in the following ways:

  • Slipping on grass or ice

  • Running, jumping or throwing

  • Lifting a heavy object or lifting in an awkward position


A chronic strain results from prolonged, repetitive movement of a muscle. We call this microtrauma. Consider these your classic common tendonitis, and may occur on the job or during sports, such as:

  • Gymnastics

  • Tennis

  • Rowing

  • Golf


Risk Factors

  • Poor conditioning. Lack of conditioning can leave your muscles weak and more likely to sustain injury.

  • Fatigue. Tired muscles are less likely to provide good support for your joints. When you're tired, you're also more likely to succumb to forces that could stress a joint or overextend a muscle.

  • Improper warm-up. Properly warming up before vigorous physical activity loosens your muscles and increases joint range of motion, making the muscles less tight and less prone to trauma and tears.

  • Environmental conditions. Slippery or uneven surfaces can make you more prone to injury.

  • Poor equipment. Ill-fitting or poorly maintained footwear or other sporting equipment can contribute to your risk of a sprain or strain.



Signs + Symptoms


Signs and symptoms will vary, depending on the severity of the injury. If you have experienced any of the following you should see a doctor or at minimum follow some of the recovery recommendations below.


  • Pain

  • Swelling

  • Bruising

  • Limited ability to move the affected joint

  • At the time of injury, you may hear or feel a "pop" in your joint



  • Pain

  • Swelling

  • Muscle spasms

  • Limited ability to move the affected muscle


Lifestyle and Home Remedies for mild Injuries


For immediate self-care of a sprain or strain, try the R.I.C.E. approach — rest, ice, compression, elevation.

  • Rest. Avoid activities that cause pain, swelling or discomfort. But don't avoid all physical activity. Instead, give yourself relative rest. With an ankle sprain, you can usually still exercise other muscles to prevent deconditioning.

  • Ice. Even if you're seeking medical help, ice the area immediately. Use an ice pack or slush bath of ice and water for no more than 15 minutes and repeat every two to three hours while you're awake for the first few days following the injury. Cold reduces pain, swelling and inflammation in injured muscles, joints and connective tissues. It also may slow bleeding if a tear has occurred.

  • Compression. To help stop swelling, compress the area with an elastic bandage until the swelling stops. Don't wrap it too tightly or you may hinder circulation. Begin wrapping at the end farthest from your heart. Loosen the wrap if the pain increases, the area becomes numb or swelling is occurring below the wrapped area.

  • Elevation. To reduce swelling, elevate the injured area above the level of your heart, especially at night, which allows gravity to help reduce swelling.


Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) also can be helpful in managing the pain and swelling.


After the first two days, gently begin to use the injured area. You should see a gradual, progressive improvement in the joint's ability to support your weight or your ability to move without pain. Mild and moderate sprains usually heal in three to six weeks. A physical therapist can help you to maximize stability and strength of the injured joint or limb.


When to see a doctor for a severe injury


You should see a doctor if you:

  • Can't walk more than four steps without significant pain

  • Can't move the affected joint

Have numbness in any part of the injured area


During a physical exam, an orthopedic doctor will check for swelling and points of tenderness in your affected limb. The location and intensity of your pain can help determine the extent and nature of the damage. Your doctor might also move your joints and limbs into a variety of positions, to help pinpoint which ligament, tendon or muscle has been injured. They are simply trying to reproduce the symptoms of an injury, in order to better quantify the extent of injury and if further tests are required. Two main testing diagnostics they rely on are:


X-rays: Can help rule out a fracture or other bone injury as the source of the problem. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): also may be used to help diagnose the extent of the injury to soft tissue such as ligament, cartilage, muscle, or tendon.


After tests are complete, the doctor can then make a sound decision as to the severity of a sprain or strain, and if any prescription medication or surgery is needed for repair.




“An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”


You can protect your joints and muscles in the long term by working to strengthen and condition the area that has been injured. The best brace you can give yourself is your own "muscle brace." Regular stretching and strengthening exercises for your sport, fitness or work activity, as part of an overall physical conditioning program, can help to minimize your risk of sprains and strains. Try to be in shape to play your sport; don't play your sport to get in shape. If you have a physically demanding occupation, regular conditioning can help prevent injuries.






Hopefully you have found this information helpful in understanding sprains and strains. Knowledge is power, and as they used to say in one of my favorite childhood cartoons GI Joe, “knowing is half the battle”.


If you have any questions as to how our staff at Gravity + Oxygen can help with working with your pre-existing injuries, or how to further prevent them, please fee free to contact us! We are here to help.



Paul aka "PC" is the Founder of G+O Fitness and has been in the fitness industry helping people for over 15 years. Paul also has an extensive background in Athletic Training and is a great resource for anyone looking to get back into action training after an injury. 


When he's not at G+O Fitness dropping beats & moving feets you can find him in the sand!

Please reload

Featured Posts

Build Your Own At-Home Workout

December 13, 2017

Please reload

Recent Posts

September 13, 2019