Strain versus sprain: what’s the difference?

Confused about the differences between a strain and a sprain? Physiotherapist Larissa Christian explain how the two different, yet similar-sounding, injuries differ and how to treat and prevent them

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Strain and sprain are two very similar words and two very common conditions, yet two very different meanings. Mixing up sprain and strain is a very common mistake yet they involve two different soft tissues, ligaments and muscles.

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What is a sprain?

A sprain occurs when a joint is put under severe stress and the ligaments are partially or completely torn (a  ligament connects two bones at a joint).

This can be caused by walking on uneven surfaces, pivoting during an athletic activity or landing on an outstretched arm.

What are the symptoms of a sprain?

Symptoms  include pain, tenderness, swelling, bruising and difficulty moving the joint. 85% of ankle injuries are inversion injuries (ankle rolls in) and the outside aspect of the ankle is injured.

What is a strain?

A strain occurs when the demands of an exercise overload muscle fibres, causing them to tear. This can happen after slipping on liquid, running, jumping, throwing or lifting heavy objects.

Strains can also happen over time due to repetitive movements. For example, working at a computer, tennis players or gymnastics.

What are the symptoms of a strain?

Symptoms include pain, muscle spasm, swelling and difficulty moving the limb.

Strains can be graded from one to three. This varies from a small amount of fibres being torn to a full rupture.

What can I do if I suffer a sprain or strain?

  • * Ice the area as soon as you can for about 20mins in total, and remember to check your skin to avoid burns
  • * If the joint becomes swollen use a compression bandage
  • * Avoid aggravating the limb too much and rest it as much a you can, but remember to keep the limb moving – a stiff joint can sometimes be more painful
  • * Seek a physio’s advice as soon as possible. The quicker you get to see a physio the quicker you are back fit and racing.

Remember: The healing time for a sprain/ strain is from three weeks to three months and sometimes longer. It is important to seek advice from your physio as soon as possible so you are aware when it is safe to return to your sport.

What are the risk factors for sprains and strains?

  • Poor strength and conditioning
  • Previous ankle sprain and inadequate rehabilitation
  • Fatigue
  • Inadequate warm up
  • Poor equipment
  • Environment
  • Repetitive exercise

How can I prevent a strain or a sprain?

  • Adequate warm up and cool down
  • Maintaining a good flexibility
  • Ensuring strengthening and conditioning is completed
  • Correct footwear for the type of surface you are on
  • Avoid exercising when tired or unwell
  • Ensuring your diet is well balanced

If you have any concerns at all, like with any health issue, seek medical advice from a qualified medical practitioner, whether that’s a doctor or physiotherapist.    

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Larissa Christian is a senior physiotherapist with