How To Move Without Pain

What is the Difference between a Sprain and a Strain

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

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Slips, falls, awkward twists happen all the time. Whether an injury is apparent at the moment or is realized after the initial injury, it’s important to have an understanding of the difference between a sprain, strain, or broken bone. 

The difference between a sprain and a strain is what structure is involved in the injury. A sprain is an injury to a ligament, which are the bands of tissue that connect two bones together. 

A strain, on the other hand,  involves an injury to a muscle and/or a tendon, which is a band of tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone

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Common symptoms of a strain

A strained muscle or tendon is the result of overstretched or small micro-tears of muscles and/or tendons.   A strained muscle or tendon may have any of the following symptoms.


Pain is the most common symptom of any injury and may be due to fatigue, prolonged use, or weakness.  The pain may be immediate or increase gradually depending on the severity of the strain.  

Inflammation, Swelling, or Redness

Swelling in the area of injury may be an indication of a strain. Warmth can also be associated with inflamed muscle tissue.  In more severe injuries, bruising may occur.

Muscle Cramps and Weakness

If you’ve strained your muscle, you might experience muscle cramps in the injured muscles. Decreased tolerance to activity is often associated with muscle weakness, such as reduced ability to walk for periods of time or stand in line. 

Loss of Motion

In the case of mild strains, your muscle may become stiff, limiting your range of motion and sensations of tension inflexibility.   The joints above and below that muscle may also lose motion, feel stiff. and have difficulty moving. 

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Common Sprain Symptoms

A sprain occurs when ligaments are overstretched or torn. This can occur from an accident, overexertion, or prolonged repetitive motion. Recovery can be quick if the severity is minimal and rest is provided to the injured joint.  


A sprain to any ligament is often painful. When the sprain occurs, the pain can be quite severe, with persistent localized pain at the ligament involved.  Most people describe the pain as sharp, shooting, or stabbing; especially when the injured ligament is stressed 


As with a strain, swelling is a common symptom of a sprain. Swelling is usually localized to the area that the sprain has occurred in. Rest, ice, elevation are helpful in reducing swelling

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Bruising is the major difference between a sprain and a strain. Bruising results from small tears in the ligament and blood vessels that can occur with a sprain injury.  Sometimes the bruising appears soon after the injury, but sometimes the bruise might not appear instantly.  Bruising is a good indication that a moderate ligament sprain has occurred

Limited Range of Motion

Moving a joint that has been sprained can be painful and swollen; therefore, making motion less tolerable and reducing the range of motion.  

Popping sensation

A sensation of pop may occur when you sprain a ligament. The sensation you’re feeling is the ligament in your joint being overstretched or torn which can cause excessive or abnormal joint movement. 

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Regardless of the structure injured, a strain, or sprain, proper management is the best way to get back to your normal activity and lifestyle.  More severe strains and sprains may need additional time to heal and may benefit from physical therapy to help you regain strength, range of motion, and normal walking or mobility.

This will be especially true if your injury requires any type of surgery.  Most mild strains and sprains will heal on their own with time and management using the principles of R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). 

If you are still having issues after 2 weeks, you may need to see your physician or physical therapist to help return to normal activity.

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*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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ankle wrapped due to joint sprain