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What Is a Sprain? Definition and How to Help the Injury

If you’re having a hard time determining the difference between sprain and strain, you’re not alone. While these two terms are usually used interchangeably, they are different – and knowing what they mean can help you distinguish between a muscle injury or a minor ligament stretch.

Sprain vs. Strain

What Is a sprain?


A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament (usually in the wrists, back, ankles), which is the fibrous collection of connective tissue that connects the tip of one bone with another. Ligaments act as a stabilizer to support the body’s joints.

Sprains are usually caused by a shock (direct or indirect) that hits a joint out of place. When a sprain occurs, patients have reported feeling a tear or pop in the joint, followed by swelling. A sprain can be classified into three categories: mild, moderate, and severe. 

What Is a Strain?

A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. Tendons are the bands of tissue that join the muscles to the bone. Unlike sprains, strains are caused by overworked muscles or tendons. Similar to a sprain, a strain can be categorized as mild, moderate, and severe.


Because the injuries themselves are very similar, the symptoms are hardly discernible. It’s no wonder they are so frequently confused.

symptoms of strains

Common symptoms of sprains include: 

  • Bruising 
  • Swelling 
  • Pain around the affected joint
  • Limited flexibility
  • Difficulty using the joint’s complete range of motion

The most common area of the body for a sprain is the ankle joint.

Common symptoms of strains

  • Muscle tensing
  • Swelling 
  • Pain around the affected joint
  • Limited flexibility
  • Difficulty using the joint’s complete range of motion

The most common areas of the body for a muscle strain are the hamstring muscle and the lower back.

Risk Factors

Anyone, at any moment, can come down with a sprain or strain, but some risk factors can increase your odds. These risk factors include:

  • Not in top shape. Lack of exercise leaves your muscles and joints exposed and too weak to thoroughly support your daily movements.
  • Using inapt equipment. Ill-fitting equipment may increase your risk of experiencing a sprain or strain. That being said, keep your shoes and any essential gear secured.
  • Not stretching. Stretching before and after exercising helps you prevent damage to the muscles and joints. A few gentle stretches increase your range of motion. A cool-down stretch helps strengthen your muscles for optimal joint relief.
  • Being too tired to workout. When you’re exhausted, you don’t support your body well – and when you don’t practice good form, you’re more likely to come down with a sprain or strain. Listen to your body, schedule some rest days to recover.
  • Your surroundings. Slippery or icy surfaces are dangerous. While these aren’t risk factors you have control over, being aware of your surroundings can help you avoid an injury.


Moderate strains and sprains are often treated with the same technique – RICE. RICE stands for:

  • Rest: Resting is imperative if you’re to recover. Stay off the injured joint. Not using it while it recovers will give the joint time to heal.
  • Ice: Ice helps subdue swelling and soreness. Do not apply ice directly to your skin. Instead, cover a bag of ice in a thin towel or piece of clothing. Press it gently on the affected area for 20 -30 minutes. Do this as much as you can for the initial 24 to 48 hours.
  • Compression: Compression helps reduce swelling. Bandage the affected joint in a trainer’s tape. Don’t wrap it too tightly; you don’t want to reduce the blood supply.
  • Elevation: When laying down, try to keep the injured joint elevated. This helps reduce swelling. In cases where your knee or ankle is injured, you may need to stay in bed or on the couch for the first two days after the injury.

For the first two to three days after your injury, RICE will be your friend and your enemy, but it will make you more comfortable and help reduce the symptoms.

More critical cases of sprains and strains may necessitate surgery to reconstruct the injured or torn ligaments, muscles, or tendons. If you’re experiencing any of the following, we recommend you see a doctor about your situation:

  • Having trouble walking or standing without discomfort
  • Failure to move or flex the injured joint
  • Feeling tingling or numbness around the affected joint


Most patients return to limited movements in three or four days for minor cases of strains or sprains. If it’s a mild case, recovery may take up to a week. Severe cases may need a lot more time to heal, accompanied by physical therapy to help you recover strength and the joint’s full range of motion.

If you’re still experiencing discomfort in the injured joint two weeks after your misfortune, you may need to pay a visit to your doctor. The lingering pain could be a hint of a more serious problem.

After recovery, even when you start feeling like yourself again, take extra precautions. Don’t subject the joint to more trauma than it did before the injury – not yet, at least. We recommend you support the joint with a brace for a bit until the tissue recovers completely.



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