The Real Difference Between A Strain And Sprain

The terms "strain" and "sprain" are often used interchangeably to describe mild injuries from exercise or exertion. However, it's not often understood what the difference is between them. The words even sound the same, making it all the more confusing. While they do have similarities, one difference makes them distinct.

To understand the difference between a strain and a sprain, it's helpful to understand a little bit about the musculoskeletal system, which includes the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and soft tissues (via Cleveland Clinic). This system is how we're able to walk, run, jump, and move. Tendons are tough tissues that attach our muscles to our bones and help them move. Ligaments are tissues that connect bones to other bones or organs. Both tendons and ligaments are made from collagen, making them very strong. But sometimes they can tear. Depending upon which one you tear will determine whether it's a strain or a sprain.

Tendons strain and ligaments sprain

If tendons are overstretched or tear, this is called a strain (via Healthline). Typically this might happen in the hamstring muscle or the lower back. If the ligaments are overstretched or tear, this is called a sprain. This commonly occurs in the ankle joint. Strains and sprains have similar symptoms, including pain, swelling, limited flexibility, and difficulty using the tendon or ligament. However, the main difference in symptoms is that a strain may produce muscle spasms, while a sprain may result in bruising around the affected area.

Both strains and sprains can be caused by exercise, accidents, lifting something heavy, overexerting yourself, moving awkwardly, or prolonged repetitive movement, according to Healthline. Your risk increases if you're out of shape, not warming up properly, are feeling tired, or are exposed to hazardous environmental conditions like slippery sidewalks. A doctor may use an X-ray or MRI test to diagnose you and recommend the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for treatment. In some cases, surgery may be required.