Is It a Sprain or a Strain?

As we go about our busy days an occasional strain or sprain isn’t uncommon. It is however common to confuse our symptoms of a pulled muscle or a tight pain, between a sprain or a strain. To treat the ailment correctly, it’s firstly important to identify your injury.

Is It a Sprain or a Strain?

As we go about our busy days an occasional strain or sprain isn’t uncommon. It is however common to confuse our symptoms of a pulled muscle or a tight pain, between a sprain or a strain. To treat the ailment correctly, it’s firstly important to identify your injury.

The main difference between the two is a sprain is an injury to ligaments and a strain is an injury to muscles or tendons (as shown below).

Here’s how to spot the difference:

Sprains Strains
bruising muscle spasm
pain around the affected joint pain around the affected joint
swelling swelling
limited flexibility limited flexibility
difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion

The main difference between the two is that with a sprain you may have bruising around the affected joint, whereas with a strain, you may feel like you are having muscle cramps.

You may not be aware that sprains are actually classified by grades:

  • Grade 1 sprain: Slight stretching and some damage to the fibers (fibrils) of the ligament.
  • Grade 2 sprain: Small tearing of the ligament. There is abnormal looseness (laxity) in the joint when it is moved in certain ways.
  • Grade 3 sprain: A tear of the ligament. This causes significant instability and makes the joint nonfunctional.

Similar to sprains, strains are also categorised according to the severity:

  • 1st Degree (mild) – Very few fibres are torn
  • 2nd Degree (moderate) – A large number of fibres are torn
  • 3rd Degree (severe) – A complete rupture of the muscle or tendon

Treatment

Mild strains and mild sprains are treated similarly. All can be treated without surgery. 

  • Do not apply pressure to the area. Rest and give it time to heal.
  • Apply Ice to reduce swelling and inflammation to the area.

Never apply ice directly to your skin. Instead, wrap a thin towel or piece of clothing around a bag of ice. Leave it on the affected area for 20 minutes, then remove the ice for 20 minutes. Repeat as much as you can for the first 24 to 48 hours.

  • Bandage the injury. This will help reduce swelling around the joint.
  • Try to elevate the affected joint area to reduce swelling. If you can’t keep your ligaments as high as your heart, parallel to the ground is also OK.

If you think your strain or sprain may be something more serious please call your local GP or healthcare professional. If you’d like more information on our orthopaedic services, please don’t hesitate to contact Dr Sunner.

If you have any further questions about the information in this article, please ask your GP. If you are experiencing excruciating pain, please call 000.

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