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.

Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #398
Photo of a sprained or strained ankle

Treatment Plan: RICE

It is generally prescribed that you follow a four-step RICE protocol, whether you have a sprain or a strain. This protocol is said to help reduce swelling and also to relieve pressure on the affected area.

RICE is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. But this can be misleading in its seeming simplicity, so let’s break it down.


It is important to rest the affected area and protect it from excessive stress, but that does not mean that it should be kept completely inactive! Not moving or using the area at all can result in major decreases in both strength and mobility, as well as promote more swelling. Whatever movement you do with that area must be within the capacity of the affected tissue, so as not to cause further injury or negatively affect the recovery of the affected tissue. Let pain be your guide—don’t be a hero but also don’t be a wimp.


Apply ice for 15 to 20 minute periods every few hours for about 48 hours after the injury occurred. Wrap the ice in a damp towel or cloth so you don’t cause superficial nerve or skin damage by placing the ice directly on your skin. In that first 48 hours, ice can decrease the swelling, reduce pain, and reduce muscle spasms. After 48 hours ice can actually become less effective and cause some less desirable reactions like a decrease in local metabolism and enzymatic activity, and reduced flexibility and elasticity of the connective tissue of the muscles.

Pro-tip: After about 72 hours has passed, heat will actually do more for you than ice. Heat will increase circulation to the area, relax muscle tension, and reduce joint stiffness.


This helps immobilize and protect the joint and also helps further reduce the swelling by adding pressure to the tissue. You can use a bandage, a brace, tape, or compression garments for this.


The injured limb or area should be elevated to the same level (height) as the heart which maximizes the power of the circulatory system. With the injured area at the same level as your heart (and not above it), the body can effectively reduce the pressure in the injured area and allow cellular waste products to be removed. This can help the injured tissue re-establishing cellular and extracellular homeostasis.

How to Prevent a Strain or Sprain

As they say, the best offense is a good defence. Before we finish up, here are some quick and dirty ways you can prevent a strain or sprain. For more tips, make sure to check out the article How to Avoid Exercise Injuries for more injury prevention tips.

  1. Strengthening training: Regular resistance training sessions mixed with stability exercises (or pre-hab) can allow you to build a robust framework which can help prevent injuries.
  2. Warm-up properly: Warming up the muscles with full body movements and dynamic (not static) stretching increases the range of movement and prepares the body for what you are about to ask it to do.
  3. Don’t forget your feet: Much of our movement starts and is anchored in our feet, which makes them one of the most important areas to take care of (along with your core). Shoes with appropriate support can help to protect your ankle and knee joints but not nearly as well as having strong and supple feet. Check out the article called 5 Ways to Get Stronger Feet for more info on that.
  4. Always stay aware of your environment: Keep your wits about you! It is tempting to slip into a world of your own when you are on a long run or ride, but always beware of slippery or uneven surfaces. Keep an eye out for obstacles (like a darting child or pet) that could pop out at you, and of course the other players on the rink, court, or field with you.

Of course, not all injuries, whether they be a sprain or a strain, are preventable. But doing your best to prevent them also means that you are doing your best to minimize the impact of those unavoidable circumstances.

For more injury info, prevention tips, and to join the strained conversation, head over to Facebook.com/GetFitGuy or twitter.com/getfitguy. Also don't forget to subscribe to the Get-Fit Guy podcast on Apple Podcasts, StitcherSpotify, Google Play or via RSS.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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