Sprains and strains are soft-tissue injuries that produce similar symptoms and a comparable amount of pain. The words are often used interchangeably, but they are two different injuries that affect different types of tissue, and their severity varies significantly. Both result most often from athletics, but even simple activities or small falls or stumbles can cause them.


A sprain is the stretching or tearing of one or more ligaments, the bands of tissue that connect the bones at a joint. The most commonly sprained joint is the ankle, and repeated sprains can lead to long-term problems, like loose joints, arthritis, or tendon injury.

woman with turned ankle while running


Severity of Sprains

Sprains are graded according to their severity. A mild grade one sprain is caused by slight stretching that results in some damage to the ligament. Grade two or moderate sprains result from partial tearing of the ligament that causes abnormal looseness in the joint in certain positions. A severe grade three sprain is a completely torn ligament and can lead to substantial joint instability.

three types of sprains illustration


Sprain Symptoms and Treatment

Treatment depends on the severity of the sprain. All types of sprains, no matter how severe, typically have symptoms like pain, swelling, and bruising, but the more severe the sprain, the more severe the symptoms. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation are common treatments for mild to severe sprains. Moderate sprains may need compression or a wrap for immobilization and support, while severe strains usually require surgery to repair the torn ligament.

Sprain vs Strain: How to Tell the Difference



A sprain affects the ligaments, while a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. Tendons are the fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone. Like sprains, strains result from stretching or tearing. Common strains include hamstring strains from boxing, hockey, soccer, or football, and elbow strains from throwing and contact sports.

man holding sore elbow after tennis


Symptoms of Strains

Strains and sprains have similar symptoms. Like sprains, strains cause swelling and pain. But, because strains affect tendons and muscle, they can also cause muscle spasms and cramping. In severe cases where the tendon or muscle is severed, the pain is severe, and it is very difficult to move the joint.

women with sore elbow


Treatment for Strains

The treatment, like the symptoms, is similar for strains and sprains. The primary first-line treatment for strains is rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Moderate to severe strains may require physical therapy.

If the tendon is ruptured or torn, surgery may be needed to repair it. Taking time for recovery is also vital. Returning to normal activity too soon can result in reinjury.

man icing his sore elbow


Sprains vs. Strains

Sprains and strains share similar symptoms, but they differ in the parts of the body they affect. Sprains affect ligaments, while strains affect muscles and tendons. Because of this, sprains occur at a joint. Strains can happen near a joint but can also occur in other parts of the body, like the hamstrings.

A good way to think about sprains vs strains is that the former occurs where a bone connects to another bone. Strains, on the other hand, happen where a muscle connects to a bone.

doctor wrapping injured ankle


Back Sprains and Strains

Back sprain and strain injuries are similar but caused by different movements. Back strains result from twisting or pulling or stress from improper lifting. Back sprains happen because of a sudden fall, twist, or blow that forces the back into an abnormal position.

Risk factors for back sprains and strains include being overweight, having a curved lower back, and playing contact sports or weightlifting.

woman with sore back sitting on bed


Strain vs Sprain in the Lower Leg

Ankle sprains are very common and usually occur from turning the foot inward when running or jumping.

Because strains affect muscles and tendons, they are not always associated with joints. A common strain that occurs around the ankle is Achilles tendonitis, which affects the tissue that connects the muscles in the calf to the heel. It is commonly caused by runners sudden increasing their intensity or duration.

older man sitting on steps with sore leg


Preventing Sprains and Strains

To prevent sprains and strains, be sure to warm up and stretch before exercising to loosen up tendons, muscles, and ligaments, and cool down when finished. Take rest days so as not to overuse muscles and maintain a balanced exercise routine that includes flexibility and strength training as well as cardio exercises.

woman stretching her legs before running


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