Harmony Medicine Blog

What’s the Difference Between a Muscle Strain or Ligament Sprain and How Do I Treat Them?

We’ve all been there: that awful pain-fueled moment where we think, “Uh oh. That didn’t feel right. Can I walk it off or not?” Soft tissue injuries like sprains and strains can be tricky to diagnose. First, we’ll discuss the difference between the two and take a look at the common symptoms of sprains and strains. Next, we’ll help you determine if you need to seek professional medical treatment. Finally, we’ll take a look at how to most effectively treat your injury.

Although the terms “sprain” and “strain” are often used interchangeably and are the injuries are quite similar, they actually refer to different parts of your musculoskeletal system. Both sprains and strains are incredibly common — to learn more about sports-related injuries, read our post on the topic, “The 7 Most Common Sports Injuries.”

What is a Sprain?

A sprain is caused by the stretching and/or tearing of a ligament (the rubberband-like fibrous tissue connecting two or more bones at the joint). A minor sprain would be defined as a partial tear of one ligament whereas a severe sprain would be a complete tear to one or more ligaments.

Sprains usually occur after you’ve slipped, tripped, or fallen in such a way that you’ve forced your body and your joints into an unnatural position. It could be as simple as a stumbling off of a curb as you’re crossing the street or a flying over that last hurdle and twisting your knee and ankle on the landing.

“The most common type of sprain is a sprained ankle. About 25,000 people sprain an ankle every day” (WebMD).

What is a Strain?

A strain is a muscle or tendon related injury. Like ligaments, tendons are fibrous cords but unlike ligaments, tendons connect muscles to bone. Once again, the severity of the injury depends on the extent of the damage and the number of muscles and tendons involved.

Strains are common injuries among athletes and active adults. Those who play high-impact sports such as hockey, basketball, or football can expect their fair share of bumps and jostles leading to strains. Even those who engage in non-contact sports often fall victim to strains. Tennis players, for example, are well-acquainted with quad, knee, hand, thumb, and forearm strains caused by repetitive, sudden, and high-impact motions.

According to the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, “People with a strain experience pain, limited motion, muscle spasms, and possibly muscle weakness. They also can have localized swelling, cramping, or inflammation and, with a minor or moderate strain, usually some loss of muscle function. Patients typically have pain in the injured area and general weakness of the muscle when they attempt to move it. Severe strains that partially or completely tear the muscle or tendon are often very painful and disabling.”

Symptoms of Sprains and Strains

The indications of sprains or strains are very similar and will likely include pain, swelling, and occasionally bruising at the site of the injury. Depending on the severity of your injuring and your individual pain tolerance, your pain may be mild, moderate, or severe.

As with all injuries, it’s important to know when to seek professional help. If you are experiencing the following symptoms as a result of your injury, you should visit a healthcare professional:

  • Your pain is so severe that you can’t put any weight on the injured joint.
  • The injured joint is crooked or has lumps and (that go beyond typical injury-related swelling).
  • You can’t move the joint.
  • You can’t walk more than a few steps.
  • The joint or affected area is numb.
  • You see redness or red streaks spreading from the injury.
  • You’ve repeated injured the area previously.
  • When in doubt, seek help.
  • If you’re experiencing chronic, lingering pain as a result of a strain or sprain, you may want to visit a certified pain management specialist.

The Verdict is in: I Have a Sprain or a Muscle Strain. What Do I Do Now?

Treatment for sprains and strains is quite similar and includes two stages.

Treating a Strain or Sprain: Stage 1

The primary goal is to reduce acute swelling and minimize pain.

“The goal during the first stage is to reduce swelling and pain. At this stage, health care providers usually advise patients to follow a formula of rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) for the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. The health care provider also may recommend an over-the-counter or prescription medication to help decrease pain and inflammation” (NIH).

RICE Therapy

Rest: If you’re suffering from a sprain or strain, it’s the perfect excuse to take a load off. Crutches, canes, and slings may be used to minimize additional injury to the site.

Ice: Ice the injured areas for 20 minutes, 4-8 times each day. Ice reduces swelling and numbs the pain. To prevent frostbite, wrap your cold pack with a towel.

Compression: Wrapping an injured ankle, knee, or wrist may help reduce swelling.

Elevation: Raising the injured joint above the level of your heart will also help decrease swelling.

Treating a Strain or Sprain: Stage 2

After the initial pain and swelling have subsided, it’s time to embark on Stage 2 of your recovery process: rehabilitation. The goal of rehabilitation is to restore the normal functioning of the injured area and strengthen the surrounding areas. Depending on the severity of your injury, you may be able to do this yourself by gently resuming normal activities and carefully stretching and strengthening the area. For more severe injuries, you may want to consult with your doctor, physical therapist, or pain management specialist for an individualized rehabilitation program.

For more information about sprains or strains or treating chronic pain as a result of a sprain or strain, contact Harmony Medicine.