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Strain vs. Sprain: What's the Difference?

Sprains and strains are common injuries among avid movers. They share similar signs and symptoms, but the difference comes down to ligaments vs. tendons.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #398
Photo of a sprained or strained ankle

How Joints and Ligaments Get Sprained

The joints in our bodies are stabilized by bands of tissue called ligaments. These ligaments allow the joint to move in some directions and not in other directions - although there are some joints that move on multiple planes. Ligaments are anchored to bone on each side of the joint.

Sprain Causes

A sprain usually occurs rather suddenly and is most often located in the area right around a joint. When a ligament is stretched too far or torn, that is when the doctor tells you that you have a sprain. Sprain symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on how many tissue fibers were affected by the mishap.

Sprains happen most often when the joint moves out of its normal range of movement, tearing or stretching the ligament. This can happen when you are simply walking or running on an uneven surface, playing a sport where you are twisting or pivoting repeatedly, falling and landing on your outstretched hand, or being knocked off balance while playing a contact sport.

A sprain usually occurs rather suddenly and is most often located in the area right around a joint.

Sprain Grades

  • Grade 1: fibers of the ligament are stretched but not torn.
  • Grade 2: ligament is partially torn.
  • Grade 3: ligament is completely torn or ruptured. Ouch!

Sprain Symptoms

  • Limited mobility
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Inability to bear weight
  • There may be "popping" sensation when the injury happens

How to Tell the Difference

Generally speaking, the treatment for sprains, strains, and tears are pretty similar so it isn’t all that important to know exactly which one you have (kind of like a cold vs a flu). But it is important to rule out severe tears and broken bones so doctors often diagnose a sprain or strain by eliminating these other causes. So, after giving you and your injury a physical exam, your doc may send you for an X-ray to rule out dislocations or fractures.

The treatment for sprains, strains, and tears are pretty similar, so it isn’t that important to know exactly which one you have.

Depending on the severity (and what the X-ray showed) your doc may also request an MRI. An MRI gives a very detailed view of the joint and could reveal things that are otherwise impossible to find.

In the end, if the MRI and the X-ray don’t reveal anything (like breaks or tears), the doctor will likely diagnose you with a sprain or strain and send you on your way, hopefully with a treatment plan in your hand or at least in your head.

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