Is It a Sprain or a Strain?

Is treatment for a sprain different than that for a strain?

Everyone is familiar with the terms “sprain” and “strain”, but the way they are often used makes it sound like they mean the same thing. They do not. Both do refer to stretching or tearing, but sprains occur in ligaments and strains happen in muscles and tendons. 


Tendons are what connect muscles to bones and they are made of fibrous tissue that is twisted into strong, tough cords. Most strains occur in the areas that you would expect; the back, knees, legs and feet. These are the areas that are most often twisted or pulled in extreme directions or are subject to repetitive movements over time. Muscle strain is one of the most common types of sports injuries.


Ligaments are also made of fibrous connective tissue, but while tendons are tasked with connecting muscles to bones, ligaments are called into play at joints. They hold the bones that make up the joints together and provide the stabilizing structure that allows the joints to perform the many functions that we take for granted every day. Sprains are generally the result of a joint being twisted or hit during a fall or other kind of trauma, causing the ligament to be overstretched or torn. The most common site for a sprain is the ankle, and more than 25,000 people in the U.S. sprain an ankle every day.

Symptoms of Sprains and Strains

At the time of injury, it may be difficult to tell if you have suffered a sprain or a strain. Often, they both present similar symptoms of pain, inflammation and bruising, with varying degrees of intensity depending upon the severity of the injury. In general, the symptoms for each can include:


  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Limited flexibility and range of motion
  • inability to put weight on the joint
  • Experiencing the sound or feeling of a “pop” in the joint at the time of injury


  • sudden onset of pain
  • swelling
  • muscle spasms, weakness or cramping
  • limited movement and reduced range of motion
  • soreness
  • bruising or discoloration
  • stiffness

Mild sprains or strains can result in a few days of soreness and reduced activity, but the more significant injuries can be extremely painful and even disabling. A seriously sprained ankle, for example, can actually make it difficult, if not impossible, to walk. Considering that there are over a million ankle injuries every year in the U.S. alone and that 85% of them are sprains, this makes accurate diagnosis and treatment very important. 


Obviously, you should consult with your healthcare professional as soon as possible after all but the most minor injury. Immediately, however, whether you have sustained a sprain or a strain, the best course is the standard R.I.C.E. protocol:

  • Rest – try to keep as much weight and pressure off of the injured area as possible
  • Ice –  to control the swelling and will also help relieve pain
  • Compression – to provide support and reduce movement
  • Elevate – this also helps in reducing the swelling

Your physician will then determine exactly what the nature and extent of your injury is. Mild sprains or strains will likely only require a few days of rest and then a return to normal activity. The more severe injuries will require longer, and, with some, your doctor may recommend taping, bracing, physical therapy or even surgery. 

At Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, our physicians are committed to more than just treating your symptoms. We strongly believe that each individual is best served through an integrative treatment plan. We focus on finding the underlying cause and providing non-surgical, evidence-based solutions tailored to your specific condition and needs. If you are experiencing pain or have questions about any other condition or service, we invite you to schedule a consultation by using our convenient online form by clicking here