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What’s the difference between a strain and a sprain?

By Alyssa Burke, PTA

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say they sprained or strained something. Maybe you’ve even experienced these injuries yourself. Sprains and strains are common injuries that affect the soft tissues of your body. You don’t have to be an athlete to experience one of these injuries. People of all ages and activity levels are susceptible to sprains and strains. Sometimes these injuries can be confusing to keep straight, so what is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

What is a strain?

A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. It happens when a muscle is overstretched or torn. This usually happens when the muscle is overused, fatigued, or is used improperly or compensating for another muscle. Strains can happen to any muscle but are more commonly seen in the lower back and hamstrings. Usually, you can feel a muscle strain as it is happening. Commonly, you will have soreness or pain in the area of the strain, decreased range of motion, swelling and bruising may occur depending on the severity of the strain. You may also notice stiffness or weakness in the muscle that you strained.

What is a sprain?

A sprain occurs when a ligament is overstretched or torn. Ligaments are fibrous tissues that surround our joints and connect our bones. Sprains usually occur with twisting, falling or trauma such as getting tackled at your knees in football. If you do experience a sprain, it is common to feel a pop or tear when it happens. You will also notice the following symptoms:

  • Soreness or pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness

Sprains can happen to any ligament but are most commonly seen in the ligaments of the ankle and the knee.

Having a strain or a sprain can impact your daily life. It may be painful to bear weight, sit comfortably, or perform job-related tasks. You may also be unable to participate in your sports, hobbies or fitness activities. It is important to take proper care of your sprains and strains so that they don’t become a bigger problem. If neglected, it is possible for the tears to become bigger. In some cases, if the tear becomes too severe, it could require surgery to repair the muscle, tendon or ligament.  It is also important to take care of your sprains and strains so that you do not end up injuring other muscles and joints.

If you do end up with a muscle strain or a ligament sprain, physical therapy can help! Physical therapy can help assist with symptom management helping you to decrease swelling and pain. It can work with you to help regain your range of motion, stabilize your joints and strengthen your muscles to help you recover from your injury and help you to prevent re-injuring yourself. Call our office TODAY at 703-450-4300 to set up an appointment. CLICK HERE for more on how physical therapy can help you.

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