Difference Between Sprain and Strain

Sprains and strains are both soft tissue injuries, and they tend to occur in the same area – our joints. Diagnosing a sprain vs strain is difficult, and things are made worse by the fact the terms are often used interchangeably. In this article, we’re going to give you a few tips so you can tell the difference between the two conditions and determine which one you may be suffering from.

The Medical Definition

Ligaments are bands of tissue that connect two joints together, and they’re located in all our joints. A joint sprain occurs when ligaments are overstretched or outright torn. Joint strains occur when tendons or muscles are overstretched or torn. Tendons are the thick cords of tissue that connect bones to muscles.

The similarities between tendons and ligaments explain why they’re so often confused. Tendons and ligaments are both located in your major joints, hence the fact that pain in one can be mistaken for pain in another. You can damage both types of tissue when you’re injured. They’re both diagnosed by brief physical exams, though X-rays may be needed to rule out broken or fractured bones. In more challenging cases, an MRI may be used to diagnose the injury.

The two conditions are even treated with the same RICE technique unless surgery is required. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to repair the torn or damaged muscles, tendons and ligaments. Whether you have a strain or a sprain, you need to see a doctor if you can’t flex the affected joint at all, can’t walk or stand without pain, or have numbness in the affected joint.


Both sprains and strains can cause swelling, pain around the affected joint, limited flexibility and difficulty using the joint for its full range of motion. However, strains can cause muscle spasms while sprains cannot. Sprains can come with bruising, while strains won’t. However, you could see red streaks around any injury site, and that should be checked out by a doctor.

Triggering Events

Sprains generally occur when someone falls or lands wrong. For example, the knee may get sprained when the foot is firmly on the ground but the knee is twisted. Wrist sprains often happen when someone lands on an outstretched hand. Strains tend to occur when someone twists or pulls the muscle. Acute strains may be caused by a trauma or trying to lift something that’s too heavy. This means that when someone falls, it may be a strain or sprain. However, pain due to the overuse of a joint and repetitive motion is always from a strain. Muscle pain from sitting or standing in an awkward position will cause a strain, not a sprain. In short, chronic pain is always a strain. Inflammation of a tendon from overuse is classified as a strain.

Contact sports increase one’s risk of developing strains. Sports that require extensive gripping like rowing, golf, tennis and gymnastics increase the risk of developing strains in their arms and forearms. Elbow strains are more common in those who throw a lot or play racket sports.

While strains and sprains share many of the same symptoms, diagnostic methods and treatments, they actually involve different soft tissues. However, if you think you have a severe strain or sprain that hasn’t been resolved with self-care, consult with a doctor.