RVNA Today: What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?

Often used interchangeably, sprains and strains describe the overstretching or tearing of soft tissue around your joints. There are differences, however.

A joint sprain is the overstretching or tearing of ligaments that connect two bones together in a joint. The ankle is the most common location for a sprain, although wrist and thumb sprains are also common. Sprains typically happen when a person falls, twists or is hit in a way that forces the body out of normal position.  Symptoms of a sprain include joint or muscle pain, inflammation, hampered movement, tenderness and bruising. A mild sprain can heal in 7-to-10 days. A more severe sprain may take several weeks to heal and should be done under supervision of a health care provider. In some cases, surgery may be required.

A joint strain is the overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons, which are the fibrous cords of tissue that connect bones to muscles. The most common locations for muscle strains are the hamstring and the lower back. Strains are more common in athletes playing contact sports or in non-contact sports like tennis, golf or rowing where repeating the same motion over and over can lead to strains of the hand and forearm. Strains can occur instantaneously or over time.  Symptoms include muscle spasms, weakness, cramping, immobility, pain, bruising and swelling.  It can take up to a few weeks for symptoms of a mild-to-moderate strain to dissipate.

Typically, the treatment for sprains and strains involves a plan called RICES for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation and Stabilization. If sprains or strains don’t start to improve, or get worse within 24 hours, seek medical attention.