Sprains & Strains: Types & Treatment


Explains difference between a strain and sprain including symptoms and treatment for each plus list of common muscle sprains and sprains.

Definition: Defining the Meaning of Sprain

A sprain, more commonly known as torn ligament, is damage to one or more ligaments in a joint, often caused by trauma or the joint being taken beyond its functional range of motion. The severity of sprain ranges from a minor injury which resolves in a few days to a major rupture of one or more ligaments requiring surgical fixation and a period of immobilization. Sprains can occur in any joint but are most common in the ankle and wrist.

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Muscles in the human body allow movement to happen by contracting and making joints flex, extend and rotate. Muscles attach on each side of the joint to bone by thick bands of fibrous tissue called tendons. When a muscle contracts, it shortens and pulls on the tendon, which allows the joint to go through a range of motion.

Sprains and strains are among the most common injuries in sports. A strain occurs when the muscle tendon unit is stretched or torn. The most common reason is the overuse and stretching of the muscle.

What is the Difference Between a Sprain and a Strain


A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon. Tendons are tissues that connect muscle to bone. Twisting or pulling these tissues can cause a strain. Strains can happen suddenly or develop over time. Back and hamstring muscle strains are common. Many people get strains playing sports.

Symptoms of a strain include pain, limited motion, muscle spasms, and possibly muscle weakness. They can also have localized swelling, cramping, or inflammation and, with a minor or moderate strain, usually some loss of muscle function. Patients typically have pain in the injured area and general weakness of the muscle when they attempt to move it. Severe strains that partially or completely tear the muscle or tendon are often very painful and disabling.


A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament. Ligaments are tissues that connect bones at a joint. Falling, twisting, or getting hit can all cause a sprain. Ankle and wrist sprains are common. Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising and being unable to move your joint. You might feel a pop or tear when the injury happens. A sprain is usually caused by direct or indirect trauma (a fall, a blow to the body, etc.) that knocks a joint out of position, and over-stretches, and, in severe cases, ruptures the supporting ligaments.

Although sprains can occur in both the upper and lower parts of the body, the most common site is the ankle. More than 25,000 individuals sprain an ankle each day in the United States. Symptoms of a sprain include pain, muscle spasm, muscle weakness, swelling, inflammation, and cramping.

While the intensity varies, pain, bruising, swelling, and inflammation are common to all three categories of sprains: mild, moderate, severe. The individual will usually feel a tear or pop in the joint. A severe sprain produces excruciating pain at the moment of injury, as ligaments tear completely, or separate from the bone. This loosening makes the joint nonfunctional. A moderate sprain partially tears the ligament, producing joint instability, and some swelling. A ligament is stretched in a mild sprain, but there is no joint loosening.


Treatment of both sprains and strains usually involves resting the injured area, icing it, wearing a bandage or device that compresses the area, and medicines. Later treatment may include exercise and physical therapy.

For people with a moderate or severe sprain, particularly of the ankle, a hard cast may be applied. This often occurs after the initial swelling has subsided. Severe sprains and strains may require surgery to repair the torn ligaments, muscle, or tendons. Surgery is usually performed by an orthopaedic surgeon. It is important that moderate and severe sprains and strains be evaluated by a health care provider to allow prompt, appropriate treatment to begin.

Quick Facts: Sprain

First Aid for a Sprain:

  • Apply ice right away to reduce swelling. Wrap the ice in cloth. Do not place ice directly on the skin.
  • Wrap a bandage around the affected area to limit movement. Wrap firmly, but not tightly. Use a splint if needed. Keep the swollen joint raised above your heart, even while sleeping.
  • Rest the affected joint for several days.
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen, or other pain relievers can help. DO NOT give aspirin to children.

When to See a Health Care Provider for a Sprain:

  • You cannot move the injured joint.
  • You have numbness in any part of the injured area.
  • Your limb buckles or gives way when you try to use the joint.
  • You see redness or red streaks spreading out from the injury.
  • You injure an area that has been injured several times before.
  • You cannot walk more than four steps without significant pain.
  • You have pain, swelling, or redness over a bony part of your foot.
  • You have severe pain and cannot put any weight on the injured joint.
  • You are in doubt about the seriousness of the injury or how to care for it.
  • The injured area looks crooked or has lumps and bumps (other than swelling) that you do not see on the uninjured joint.

Statistics: U.S. Ankle Sprain

1 million ankle injuries occur each year, and 85 percent of them are sprains

Incidence extrapolations for USA for Ankle sprain: 850,000 per year, 70,833 per month, 16,346 per week, 2,328 per day, 97 per hour, 1 per minute. Extrapolation calculation uses the incidence statistic: 850,000 annually (NIAMS)

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