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Sprains vs. Strains: What Is the Difference?

Sprains vs. Strains: What Is the Difference?

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts know all too well the risks that come with being active. A  painful misstep can quickly overshadow a satisfying workout, bringing on a surge of worry that you've just encountered a sprain or a strain. 

But what exactly are these terms we toss around when discussing sports injuries? And, more importantly, what should you do if you think you have one? 

You’re not alone in your confusion between sprains and strains, so Dr. Bryan King and Dr. Jeffrey Cuomo, our experienced orthopedic surgeons at Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute, have compiled a guide to help you differentiate between these two common injuries. 

Sprains and strains 101

While sprains and strains both involve a wrenching, twisting, or pulling that leads to soft tissue damage, they affect different types of tissues. 

A sprain refers explicitly to damage to a ligament (the tissue that connects two or more bones at a joint), while a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon (the tissue that connects muscle to bone).

Sports medicine and trauma specialists like Drs. King and Cuomo see these injuries frequently — they’re often the result of overstretching or overuse, with each necessitating its unique course of treatment.

Understanding the difference between them is critical for seeking the right kind of help, and managing your recovery process and preventing them in the future.


A sprain results from a joint being forced into an unnatural position, causing the ligaments to stretch or tear. 

The telltale signs of a sprain include the classic trio of symptoms: pain, swelling, and bruising. You might find it tough to move the affected joint, and it’s not unusual to hear or feel a “pop” at the time of the injury.


Conversely, a strain is due to overstretching or overcontraction of a muscle. It shares similarities to a sprain — pain, swelling, and limited range of motion — but you might also feel muscle spasms or cramps. 

Strains often cause sharp pain at the time of injury, and inflammation can settle in within a few hours.

Treating sprains and strains 

Although sprains and strains affect different parts of your anatomy, they call for similar treatment.

What to do first for a sprain or strain

The initial approach to a sprain or strain should focus on the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Rest the area to prevent further damage, apply ice to reduce swelling, use a compression bandage to support the area, and elevate the limb to minimize swelling. 

Moving on to recovery

Recovery from a sprain or strain typically involves immobilization, physical therapy, and pain management. 

For immobilization, we may recommend using a brace or a splint. Physical therapy helps restore the injured joint or muscle's strength, flexibility, and function. Pain management may include over-the-counter or prescription medication, depending on the severity of your injury.

Returning to activity after a sprain or strain

Rehabilitation for a sprain or strain is about taking gradual steps to resume normal activities without re-injuring yourself. This might involve a structured exercise program, beginning with gentle movements and gradually increasing intensity. Our team lets you know when and how to proceed with each step of your rehabilitation.

Preventing future injuries

One of the most critical phases of rehab is learning how to prevent future injuries. This includes strengthening the muscles around the area, improving your conditioning, and practicing proper techniques for your sport or exercise routine. 

Educating yourself on correct form and the nature of your injury is invaluable here and can often be the difference between staying in the game and facing another setback.

Physical activity after an injury is a delicate dance. It's essential to balance rest and recovery with maintaining your fitness level. Depending on the severity of your sprain or strain, you may need to modify your activities, switch to a lower-impact form of exercise, or even take a brief hiatus from exercise altogether.

Fortunately, our orthopedic experts have many tools and techniques to help manage your injury while remaining active. For example, we use adaptive equipment (such as tape or braces) and different training approaches (like cross-training or focusing on a different aspect of your sport). 

The key is to stay informed and adaptable, working with your injury rather than against it.

Misconceptions about sprains and strains

There’s no shortage of myths surrounding sprains and strains that can impede proper recovery. The most glaring of these is the notion that pushing through the pain is somehow admirable or beneficial. In reality, ignoring the pain can lead to chronic issues and prolong your recovery time. 

Another common misunderstanding is expecting a straightforward healing process. Each injury is unique, and so is the healing timeline. You must listen to your body and follow our recovery plan.

Knowing the difference between a sprain and a strain is more than just wordplay; it’s about arming yourself with the knowledge to respond effectively to an injury, to recover both efficiently and safely, and to strive toward a future where you can avoid such setbacks altogether. 

If you suspect you’ve suffered a sprain or strain, call Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and schedule an appointment for an evaluation. 

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