Strain or Sprain: What's the Difference?
By Michelle Briancesco, DPT

As you can imagine some of the most common injuries we treat are strains and sprains. But what's the difference between the two? How do you know which is which?

Let's take a look at both types of injuries to make the clear distinction.


The strain.

More common than sprains, these overuse injuries happen when a muscle or tendon (that connects the muscle to the bone) gets stretched too far. For example, when you're running too fast or trying to jump over something.

This over stretching causes some pain. But after some rest the muscle heals and returns to its original shape.


But not if you go too far...

Every time there's an injury, you actually strain the muscle first. Since it's the first line of defense. So if you were to roll your ankle the muscle tries to stabilize that movement. But if the muscle isn't strong enough it tears and moves to the ligament.

If the ligament tears you get a sprain.

So a strain and sprain actually always happen together. Meaning if you sprain something you've actually strained the muscle or tendon in the area first.


How do you heal a strain?

The first thing is rest and ice. Then you slowly introduce stretching and strengthening. This is where people make a mistake because they try to get to the stretching/strengthening too soon.

You need to rest and allow the pain to go down. You can actually makes things worse by not allowing enough time to rest.


Unfortunately, the sprain can't be healed.

But with most ligaments there's a muscle that helps do the same action. So to compensate you can build up those muscles. Otherwise known as the first line of defense to protect the sprained ligament.

When you sprain or rupture a ligament you've permanently lost your second line of defense. Elite athletes turn to some type of surgical procedure because they need to do an advanced activity. But most people wouldn't necessarily need to have the ligament repaired because they don't use it as frequently.


The sprain won't heal but there won't always be pain.

Ice reduces the pain and inflammation. But the ligament is always in a weakened state.


To Summarize:

A strain happens to a muscle or tendon from overuse or a sudden movement like darting towards the net while playing tennis. After plenty of rest the strain will heal.

A sprain happens when you get past the first line of defense and into the ligament. This happens if you step on a ball and roll your ankle. The ligament itself doesn't heal. But the pain goes away. The support muscles must be strengthened to compensate for the weakened state.

As always a strength and conditioning routine can help you lessen the chances of these types of injuries. Contact us if you have any questions. Or if you would like to discuss starting a program of your own.