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Teri Lou, December 19 2022

Sprain vs Strain: What You Need To Know

Learn the difference between sprains and strains, and how they are treated.

Sprains and strains often look similar when it comes to symptoms and treatment. However, sprains involve ligaments, and strains deal with tendons. Both are connective tissue necessary for proper mobility. Telling the two apart requires medical expertise and treatment as there are three grades and each with different levels of care. Let's take a look at the common questions about sprains and strains so you can make an informed decision about your health. 

What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

A sprain differs from a strain in that a sprain involves an injury to the bands of tissue that connect two bones together, whereas a strain involves an injury to a muscle or the band of tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone. Sprains overstretch or tear ligaments, while a strain involves overstretching or tearing muscles or tendons. As tendons are thick fibrous cords of tissue that connect to muscles, these are very common. 

The symptoms can be very similar for both, and unfortunately, it's even possible to get a sprain and a strain at the same time. With both, you may experience bruising, pain, swelling, limited flexibility, and range of motion. The main difference, though, in reference to symptoms is a sprain may have bruising while a strain will not, but it can have spasms of the affected muscle. 

What is a sprain?

Sprains are injuries to the ligaments, which are thick bands of cartilage that connect bone to bone. They occur as a result of a ligament stretch or tear. Sprains are a type of acute injury caused by trauma such as a fall or an external force that displaces the surrounding joint from its normal alignment. Sprains range in severity from a minor ligamentous stretch to a complete tear. Bruising, swelling, instability, and painful movement are all common symptoms of a sprain.

Additionally, a sprain can limit the range of motion of the affected joint and may not bear weight. Some people may even experience a popping sound because the ankle is in the process of stretching or tearing. Most often, the cause of sprains and strains are from sports, exercise, accidents, lifting heavy objects, overexertion, awkward positions, and repetitive motions for long periods of time. Often the affected joints include the back, thumb, wrist, knee, or ankle. 

What is a strain?

Strains are injuries to the muscles or tendons, which are the thick bands that connect the muscles to the bones. They occur as a result of a sudden tear, twist, or pull of the muscle. Strains are a type of acute injury caused by overstretching or over-contracting. 

After a strain, common symptoms include pain, weakness, and muscle spasms. Muscle cramps and loss of motion are common with a strain. Limited motion and inflexibility can further affect a strained joint. 

Which is worse: sprain or strain?

Sprains and strains are equally bad. Strains affect the tendons, while sprains affect the ligaments. Tendons and ligaments are both connective tissues that are graded in severity. Therefore, you can have a mild sprain or a severe strain, or vice versa.

Both sprains and strains are graded, with grade one being the least severe and grade three being the worst. Grade one indicates overstretched for both. Next, a grade two refers to a partial tear, and grade three to a complete tear. 

With both, you will need to seek medical attention if the injury is swollen, bruised, in extreme pain, severely limited mobility, or if the symptoms do not improve after a few days of rest. When in doubt, you should seek medical attention. 

Strains often happen from overstretching and can occur from one incident or from several incidences over time. Meanwhile, a sprain usually happens from an unnatural position. If you know what happened, then you may have some indicator of what injury you have. However, always consult a doctor as you may not know the severity and proper treatment plan, which may require surgery. 

How can you tell a sprain from a strain?

The injuries from a sprain or strain because the symptoms are so similar may not be detectable yourself. A medical professional will be better equipped to determine if the problem is a sprain or a strain. Doctors can run tests to figure out what injury you have. However, the treatment for both is the same, RICES or rest, ice, compression, elevation, and stabilization. 

Doctors may also want you to wear a brace or some other device that will keep the joint immobile. Additionally, doctors will check for bone breaks and fractures to reduce additional complications to the joint. Either way, the average person is not capable of self-diagnosing an injury. 

What heals faster, a sprain or strain?

Strains heal faster as tendons heal faster than ligaments. Both will take about two weeks to heal. However, you will need to avoid strenuous exercise and activity for up to eight weeks to prevent further injury. Unfortunately, grade three sprains or strains can take months to heal, necessitating a visit to the doctor for treatment and later for physical therapy. 

Can an X-ray show a sprain?

X-rays cannot see sprains, but they can show fluid accumulation. However, they can suggest if a joint is not lined up correctly, which could indicate a strain or sprain. Furthermore, an x-ray can rule out a broken bone which can further indicate a strain or a sprain and allow for proper treatment. Finally, an x-ray can help to determine if an injury is serious, and with an injury, broken bones are often involved. 

Doctors may also want to use an MRI to help diagnose in the case of a severe sprain or strain as this can detect fractures. Next, doctors may use a CT scan or arthrogram to gain better internal images. Finally, swelling that does not go down in the right amount of time may require additional testing. 

What happens if a sprain is left untreated?

Sprains that are not treated and given the proper time to rest can develop further injuries or even arthritis. In addition, sprains often cause the ankle to become unstable if left untreated, which can lead to chronic discomfort, edema, instability, and, eventually, arthritis.

Next, sprains should be immobilized as soon as possible, and the ankle ligaments should be in a stable posture. While the injury is still new and the body is producing inflammatory and growth chemicals to mend the sprain, this allows the ligaments to heal in the proper position. Any delay in therapy could cause the ankle ligaments to stretch and become slack, resulting in an unstable ankle. 

Other injuries that occur at the same time, such as tendon rips and cartilage injuries, should be recognized as soon as possible so that proper treatment may begin. An injury always requires an evaluation to ensure all affected areas are treated and followed up with rehabilitation as physical therapy helps to stabilize the ankle. 

How do you treat a sprain?

For the first two days, doctors will use RICES to treat the injury. This includes rest, tools to prevent weight-bearing, compression, ice, and medication. Once the swelling reduces, doctors can begin further treatment. Usually, treatment involves slowly beginning to use the injured area for lower-grade injuries and longer immobilization for higher-grade injuries. 

In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary, such as with a grade three where a ligament or tendon has been removed completely from bones or joints. Additionally, a ligament that does not heal on its own may require surgical intervention, as can reconstructing a ligament. 

Often, sprains will complicate a person's life for at least two months but can go longer depending on the severity. After, physical therapy can take a couple of months as well, further extending the injury healing time but is a necessary step. Following all of the steps will help to improve and speed recovery. 

Devices are often used to immobilize the area; these can be crutches, bandages, sports tape, braces, or a walking cast. Alternately, they will prescribe over-the-counter medications such as Aleve or Tylenol. 

Why visit urgent care for sprain and strain treatment?

Both sprains and strains allow you to perform the needed motions throughout the day. However, a sprain or strain can have a significant impact on your life, which is why you should seek medical attention if you suspect an issue with mobility or pain.

Urgent care costs a fraction of the price of an emergency room, and it also provides faster care, same-day or walk-in appointments, and accepts a wide range of insurance plans. Furthermore, you can see a doctor at urgent care who can order and perform the necessary tests to diagnose an injury for a full recovery coupled with the right treatment plan. 

At Portland Urgent Care, we have a team of professionals ready to help treat sprains and strains. Not only can we help with pain relief but also with a treatment and pain management plan. Our on-staff chiropractor can help with adjustments as well to further alleviate symptoms. With an acupuncturist, massage therapists, and injury rehabilitation, we can help with all your symptoms and help you on the road to comfort and healing. 


Sprains and strains are common injuries that necessitate medical care. While the majority of the treatments can be done at home, a customized plan is required for a complete recovery and to avoid further injury. Call Portland Urgent Care today to schedule an appointment and help to heal your injuries.

For more information on injuries, see our related blogs:

Common Causes & Effects of Neck Injuries

Neck Injury Treatment

Types of Back Injuries

How Do You Know If Your Back Injury Is Serious?

Types of Ankle Injuries

Common Types & Causes of Knee Injuries

How To Treat & Recover From Knee Injuries

Wrist Ligament Injuries

Wrist Injuries Causes & Treatment

What Is A Laceration Wound?

Written by

Teri Lou

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