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Is there a difference between a strain and a sprain?

By: Devin Wurman, DPT

Spring is finally here; we are enjoying the warmer weather, and also engaging in more activities. It’s also that time of year we start seeing some minor injuries occur with all age groups.  Sprains and strains are pretty common minor injuries. People usually like to use them interchangeably to describe the same injury, however there are differences.

A sprain involves the ligaments in a joint. Ligaments attach bone to bone and are there for stability. A strain involves the muscles that attach to a joint.  A strain can involve a tendon or a muscle itself.  Tendons are the connections between muscles and bones.  The other main difference between the two is that a strain will involve some sort of bruising around the joint, whereas a sprain will possibly cause some muscle spasms.  Both injuries will likely involve swelling, limited range of motion, and pain.

What can specifically cause one of these to occur?

  • Athletic activity
  • Overexerting yourself
  • A fall
  • Repetitive motion involving the same joint

The main thing to note is that there are definitely people who are more prone to these injuries than others.

  • Not warming up
  • Lack of conditioning, “out of shape”
  • Using equipment improperly
  • Environmental factors such as bad weather, uneven terrain
  • General fatigue

It’s normal to have a sprain or strain occasionally; however you should take note if this becomes something that occurs more frequently. Repetitive sprains occurring in the same joint can cause loosening of the ligaments that hold that joint together. This will lead to repetitive injury because there is a lack of support.  In addition, muscles that constantly tear due to a strain may not heal properly.   If any of these occur, you will have pain that doesn’t go away, inability to participate in normal activities, and possible permanent loss of movement in that joint.  Furthermore, if left untreated or reinjured, could possibly lead to surgical intervention. 

If one of the above occurs, you should immediately stop the activity you are doing and RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation).  You can also take anti-inflammatories to reduce the swelling and pain.  If after a week the symptoms do not improve, then seek the help of a physical therapist.  Physical therapists are experts on the body and can assess the injury, determine whether you need to consult with an orthopedist, or prescribe exercises and manual treatment to help with healing.  Physical therapists can also educate you on what you need to do to get back to the activities you love without re-injuring yourself. 

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