What is the difference?

You’re running into your house to get out of a rain storm that suddenly popped up and the next thing you know you have a sharp pain in your ankle as you step down wrong and end up on the floor. The next day, your ankle is swollen and you cannot put any weight on it, so you go to the doctor. He tells you that you’ve got a muscle strain, gives you care instructions and sends you home. What exactly is a strain? Is it the same as a sprain? How do you care for either of them?


A strain is the stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon (which connects muscle to bone). It can be caused by an acute injury when a muscle is stretched unusually far or abruptly, such as slipping on ice, running, jumping, throwing, lifting a heavy object or lifting in an awkward position. It can also be caused by chronic repetitive/prolonged movements that can occur on the job or in sports, like rowing, golf, tennis or gymnastics. A strain causes pain, swelling, muscle spasms and limited movement of the affected muscle. A sprain is the stretching or tearing of ligaments (which connect two bones together and are found near joints). It’s caused by overextension or tearing of a ligament while severely stressing a joint. Some examples of causes are twisting your ankle if you’re walking/exercising on an uneven surface, turning your knee when pivoting during an athletic activity, bending your wrist at an odd angle when landing on an outstretched hand and overextending your thumb while skiing or playing racquet sports. Sprains will cause pain, swelling, bruising, limited movement of affected joint and you might hear a “pop” sound at the time of injury.

TreatmentFast Facts Strain vs Sprain

The treatment for strains and sprains is essentially the same. If it is mild, you will do RICE therapy and take over the counter pain relievers, such as Advil or Tylenol. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Please see Fast Facts for a more in-depth look at which each of these entails. For moderate sprains/strains, you will want to immobilize the area with a splint or brace. For mild to moderate, you should gently start using the area after the first two days and in three to six weeks, you should be mostly, if not completely, healed. Severe sprains/strains require surgery to repair torn ligaments or ruptured muscles. In order to know the level of severity, your doctor will do a physical exam that involves moving the affected area into a variety of positions to pinpoint the injured ligament, tendon or muscle. Sometimes, they will order an X-ray to rule out a broken bone or MRI to see the extent of damage to the injured area.


The biggest risk factors that may cause a strain or sprain are poor conditioning, fatigue, improper warm-up, environmental conditions and poor equipment. In order to prevent injury, do regular stretching and strengthening exercises. When you’re tired, stop the exercise session. Take the time to do a proper warm-up and make sure to wear footwear that provides support and protection. Always be aware of your surroundings, not just when exercising, such as looking for water or ice on the ground that might cause you to fall. If exercise equipment is broken, don’t use it. These are just a few of the ways to help prevent you from having a strain or sprain.

Strains and sprains are not fun, but now you have the tools you need to get the proper treatment or even prevent getting one. If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons at https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/