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Sprains vs. Strains

Most people confuse or use either word to describe any injury that involves a joint and/or the muscles and soft tissues surrounding it. The typical injury usually results from either a twisting type fall or from over-exertion, usually from engaging in sports-type play.

In reality, there is a distinct difference between a sprain and a strain. Regardless, the initial care for either one can usually be received at your local urgent care center. Here’s some quick facts to help you better understand your injury and how to effectively take care of yourself both immediately following the injury and after being seen by the provider.

The key difference between a SPRAIN and a STRAIN is what type of underlying structure is involved.

SPRAINS usually involve the over stretching or tearing of a ligament. Ligaments are the connecting tissues that hold two bones together, not to be confused with tendons, which attach the muscles to bone.

One of the most common SPRAINS is that of the ankle. This occurs when someone accidentally takes a bad step – usually onto uneven ground, like from a walkway to a curb- causing the foot and ankle to twist. This results in the ligaments “over stretching” producing the SPRAIN.


STRAINS are the result of the over stretching or tearing of muscles or tendons near the joint. Most common strains are the hamstring in the leg or strains of the lower back.


Common Symptoms of Sprains

  • Bruising

  • Pain around the joint

  • Swelling

  • Limited flexibility

  • Decreased range of motion


Common Symptoms of Strains

  • Muscle spasm

  • Pain around the joint

  • Swelling

  • Limited flexibility

  • Decreased range of motion



What to do at Home:

  • STOP the activity

  • RICE technique

    • REST – Keep off the affected joint

    • ICE – Use ice on the affected area- especially for the first 24-48 hours as this reduces swelling.

    • Compression – if possible- wrap the affected area with a ACE type wrap (but never too tightly)

    • Elevate – Keep the affected area elevated higher than your heart. This helps reduce swelling.



Seek Further Care

  • IF there is any numbness of tingling around the joint

  • IF you cannot move or flex the affected joint

  • IF you have difficulty walking, standing, or even resting without pain

  • IF you cannot control the swelling

  • IF you notice any deformity to the area



Most sprains and strains will get better over time, but it can be a lengthy process and on occasion may require surgical intervention by an orthopedic surgeon if the ligament or other tissue is severely damaged. Your physician may initially perform an x-ray of the affected joint or injury site, but this will not determine if any soft tissue (like a ligament, tendon or muscle has been damaged.) Over time, if the injury does not heal or worsens, a MRI may be required.

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