What Are Sprains and Strains?

Common ligament and muscle injuries

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Sprains and strains are common soft-tissue injuries. Sprains are ligament injuries, while strains involve muscles.

Beyond that, they're quite similar. Both types of injuries are often the result of being stretched too far.

This article will walk you through the symptoms of sprains and strains, what causes them, when you should get medical help, and how they're diagnosed and treated.

What Is a Ligament?

A ligament is a thick, tough, fibrous tissue that connects bones together. One of their jobs is to prevent abnormal movements. Commonly injured ligaments are in the ankle, knee, and wrist.

Young man with an injury
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Symptoms of Sprains and Strains

The most common symptoms of a sprain or strain include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty bending a joint
  • Muscle spasm

Symptoms vary with the intensity of the injury. If you're not sure how bad it is, you should seek professional help from an athletic trainer, physical therapist, or medical professional.

Causes

A sprain is caused by a ligament being stretched too far. Ligaments are very strong and can allow joints to move, but they don't have much elasticity.

That means when the ligament is stretched too far, it can tear. Tears can be partial or complete.

Strains are injuries to muscles or the tendons that attach the muscles to your bones.

When you pull too far on a muscle, or pull a muscle in one direction while it's contracting in the other direction, it can cause injuries. Like sprains, strains can involve partial or complete tears.

A complete muscle tear is a medical emergency. You may hear a popping sound when it happens, followed by extreme pain and being unable to use it. If this happens, get medical help.

Strains can also be caused by chronic activities that eventually overstretch the muscle fibers.

Many sports place participants at risk for sprains and strains, including:

  • Football
  • Basketball
  • Gymnastics
  • Volleyball
  • Many others

These injuries can also occur with everyday activities, such as:

Repetitive activities may also cause a sprain or strain.

When to Get Help

Knowing when to get help is important. Many sprains and strains can be managed with simple steps on your own. But you should get checked to make sure it's not something more serious.

You should get medical attention if:

  • You have severe pain and can't put any weight on the injured extremity
  • The injured area looks deformed when compared to the opposite side
  • You can't move the injured area
  • You can't walk or use the part because of pain
  • Your limb buckles or gives way when you try to move
  • You've injured this part before
  • You have severe swelling, or swelling doesn't improve with rest and elevation

Recap

Sprains are ligament injuries and strains are muscle or tendon injuries. Both can happen due to being stretched too far or over used. Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising, and difficulty moving the injured part.

Sprains and strains can occur during sports or everyday activities. Get medical attention if symptoms are severe or don't improve with home care.

Diagnosis

A healthcare provider may be able to diagnose a sprain or strain with just a physical examination.

They may send you for x-rays to rule out a broken bone or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see how badly the soft tissues are damaged.

Typically, healthcare providers talk about the severity of ligament injuries through grades:

  • Grade 1 is stretching or slight tearing, pain is minimal and the body part is usable
  • Grade 2 is a partial tear, using the body part causes pain
  • Grade 3 is a complete tear, it's likely impossible to use the body part

Treatment

Treating sprains and strains often involves the "RICE" method. That stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. You may also want to take anti-inflammatory drugs.

More severe injuries may require additional treatments.

Rest

The first 24-48 hours after the injury is a critical treatment period. Rest as much as possible. Then, gradually start using the injured extremity. But try to avoid any activities that cause pain.

You may need to use a splint, sling, or crutches to adequately rest the injured body part.

Ice

For the first 48 hours post-injury, ice the sprain or strain 20 minutes at a time every 3-4 hours. 

If you don't have an ice pack available, you can use a bag of frozen food or freeze water in paper cups. 

Do NOT ice a sprain or strain for more than 20 minutes at a time. You won't help it heal any faster, and you can cause tissue damage.

Compression

You can use an Ace bandage for compression when elevating a sprain or strain in early treatment.  Wrap the area, overlapping the elastic wrap by one-half of the width of the wrap.

The bandage should be snug without cutting off circulation. If your fingers or toes become cold, blue, or tingle, take it off and re-wrap it.

Elevation

Elevating the injury can help keep swelling down, which reduces pain. Try to get the injured part higher than your heart if possible.

At night, you can elevate it by placing pillows under your arm or leg.

Anti-Inflammatories

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can ease swelling and pain in an injury. Over-the-counter NSAIDs include:

Follow the dosing guidelines on the label. Don't take more than that unless instructed to by a healthcare provider.

Grade 3 Sprains/Severe Strains

For more serious injuries, you'll probably need to immobilize the area for a while. This may be done with a brace, splint, or cast.

In some cases, surgery may be needed to repair the damage. This is more common in people who are young and athletic.

Recap

Sprains and strains are diagnosed by an examination and possibly imaging to rule out a broken bone and assess the extent of the damage.

Treatment generally involves rest, ice, compression, elevation (RICE) plus anti-inflammatories. For more serious injuries, a brace, splint, or cast may be used to immobilize it. Surgery is sometimes performed in more severe cases.

Summary

Sprains are ligament injuries and strains are muscle injuries. Symptoms include pain, inflammation, and difficulty using the injured part.

Both injuries can be caused by over-stretching the soft tissues. They can involve partial or complete tears.

Healthcare providers diagnose sprains and strains with a physical exam. Imaging may be done to rule out a fracture or assess the damage. Sprains are often given a grade of 1 through 3 based on their severity.

Rest, ice, compression, elevation, and NSAIDs are the standard treatment for sprains and strains that aren't severe. In more severe cases, you may need to immobilize the body part. Surgery may be performed for severe tears in young, athletic people.

A Word From Verywell

Sprains and strains should be taken seriously. The better you follow the treatment regimen that's right for your injury, the sooner it'll heal.

Remember to have it checked by a healthcare provider to make sure nothing more serious is going on. Then, plan to take it easy for a few days (at least) to give your body time to recover.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sprains, strains and other soft-tissue injuries. Updated June 2020.

  2. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Sprain (muscle tear) and strain.

  3. Rush University Medical Center. Varying degrees of ankle sprains.

  4. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Sprained ankle. Updated February 2016.