Strain or Sprain: What’s the Difference?


Whether you’ve strained or sprained your wrist, it hurts either way. The pain may feel similar, but there’s a difference between a strain and a sprain. These two injuries can vary in degree of damage. 


Both injuries are used interchangeably to signify damage to muscles and joints in various parts of the body – most commonly the wrist, ankle, hand, back and leg. Do you know when you have a strain or sprain?  


What’s a Sprain?


A sprain involves the tearing and overstretching of ligaments. Ligaments are the tough bands of fibrous tissues connecting two bones in your joints. You can fall and sprain a body part. You can step wrong and twist an ankle, which is a sprain. You can get hit or accidentally hit a body part and get a sprain. 


The ligaments on the outer part of your joint become overstretched sometimes to the point of tearing. This ligament sprain certainly feels as painful as it sounds. Common body parts we tend to sprain are the wrist and ankle. 


Sprains happen at the joint. This means sprains can happen at the knee and even in your knuckle – anywhere ligaments connect to bones connecting at the joint. 


What are the Different Grades of an Injury Sprain?


Just as there are degrees of a burn, there are different grades of how bad a sprain can be.


A grade I sprain – overstretched ligament or a mild tear, with little to no joint instability. It hurts, but you’re still able to move your sprained joint and bear weight in the location.


A grade II sprain – more serious but still incomplete ligament tear, with some joint looseness. It definitely hurts and there will be prolonged pain and swelling. 


A grade III sprain – completely torn or ruptured ligament. While not a broken bone, you’ll be unable to bear weight on the joint because it’s unstable. There will be severe pain and swelling. There may have been a “popping” sound and you will notice bruising because of bleeding underneath the skin from the ligament tear.


What’s a Strain?


A strain involves the overstretching or tearing of muscles and tendons. Tendons are the dense fibrous cords of tissue that connect bones to muscles. You can overexert a muscle during exercise or physical activity and cause a strain. You can lift a heavy object and strain your lower back. 


Quick twists and sudden pulls cause muscle strains. A swift motion or force against the muscle causes it to overstretch and forcefully contract unexpectedly. This leads to a tear in the muscle tissue. 


These injuries affect the tendons or thick bands that attach muscles to bones. Symptoms of pain, weakness and muscle spasms are commonly experienced after a muscle strain happens. 


Muscle strains are common sports injuries, such as pulling a hamstring muscle.


Symptoms & Diagnosis of a Strain or a Sprain


Pain is undeniably the most common symptom of a strain or sprain. Depending on the degree of injury that’s occurred, you may notice accompanying symptoms such as the following: 


  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Redness 
  • Weakness of the muscle or tendons
  • Inability to use the muscle at all
  • Inability to move the joint
  • A “pop” or tear when the injury happens


A muscle strain or ligament sprain may be severe enough to feel like a broken bone. A doctor will provide a diagnosis by excluding the latter with a physical exam and may order an x-ray or MRI scan. A scan can show if there are breaks and tears in the joint and bone. If there is no injury to the bone, the diagnosis is likely a strain or sprain.


Treatment & Recovery


There are measures you can take at home until your trip to visit the doctor to rule out more serious damage and injury. Treatment for a strain and sprain involves the RICE method to recovery. 


R - rest

I - ice

C - compression

E - elevation


Rest your strained or sprained injury. Do not continue to bear unnecessary weight on the injury or overwork it. Rest up. Ice your strain or sprain. For the first 24 to 48 hours following your injury, apply an ice pack for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours. 


Wrap the affected area with an ace bandage to ease the swelling. It should be a snug fit, but not too tight. Elevate your strain or sprained injury above heart level. Raising your injured area or body part helps to reduce pain and swelling. 


It depends on the severity of the injury, but most strains and sprains heal in three to eight weeks. You can expect to have full mobility of your strained or sprained body part in this time and see a full recovery.


Call our physician referral line at 205-996-WEST to schedule an appointment with a UAB Medical Westprovider. We are here to serve the communities of Hoover, Bessemer, McCalla, and Vance and more!