What’s the difference between sprains and strains?

What’s the difference between sprains and strains?

Sprains and strains: The difference between sprains and strains is the type of injured tissue. Sprains are injuries to ligaments. It’s a stretching or tearing sometimes. Strains, however, are injuries to either muscles or tendons. Depending on the severity of the strain, it may be a simple overstretch of the muscle or tendon, or it can also be partial or complete tearing of that tissue.


Sprains occur when people fall or land on an outstretched arm for example, slide into a base, land on the side of their foot, or twist a knee while their foot is firmly planted on the ground. This results in overstretching or tearing of the ligament that supports a particular joint. Sounds painful! Well it usually is.

Remember ligaments only travel from bone to bone. That’s all they do. They’re support structures essentially that are passive.

In other words, we don’t get to tell our ligaments to be tighter or to be looser like we get to tell our muscles to tighten and to produce force or power for us. Ligaments are supporting structures that support our joints. Think of them like scaffolding.

Sprains can occur in the upper and lower parts of your body. One of the most common injuries in the United States is ankle sprains.

Signs and Symptoms of Sprains

Signs and symptoms of sprains usually include swelling, bruising, loss of the ability to move or use the joint which we call your functional ability. The intensity of signs and symptoms can also vary depending on the severity of the sprain. People often feel or describe hearing a pop or a tear when the injury happens.

A grade 1, or mild sprain, is a slight tearing with no resulting joint instability. Think of a rubber band that you stretch a little bit and then it goes right back to its original length.

A grade 2, or moderate sprain, is a partial tearing of the ligament and can be characterized by bruising, some moderate pain, and swelling. These people usually have a little bit of difficulty putting weight on the affected joint, and they can experience a minor loss of function.

Grade 3, or severe sprains, describe a complete tear or rupture of ligaments that are characterized by pain, swelling, and usually bruising, which is one of the hallmarks of a grade 3 or severe sprain.


Now we are going to talk about strains caused often by twisting or pulling of our muscles or of our tendons. The back and the hamstring muscles are two really common sites for strains. The hamstring muscles are located at the back of the thigh. People who play contact sports like soccer, football, hockey, boxing, wrestling are at risk for strains. Muscle strains are also caused by lifting something like a heavy box out in the garage.

Elbow strains occur in people who participate in racquet sports, throwing sports, and other contact sports. You can have an elbow strain if you’re a carpenter and you’ve been using a screwdriver manually for a very long time at work.

Acute strains can be caused by trauma such as blow to the body. Additionally, injury occurs when lifting a heavy object improperly, over stressing the muscle. Chronic strains are usually from overuse.

Signs and Symptoms of Strains

Signs and symptoms of strains include pain, muscle spasm, often times muscle weakness. Sometimes there is tissue swelling, cramping, inflammation. With a minor to moderate strain, you are usually going to have a little bit of loss of function.

Patients will typically describe pain in the injured area, generalized weakness of the muscle when they attempt to move it. Sometimes with a severe strain, characterized by partially or completely torn muscles, there is significant disability or loss of function.

Hopefully you’re now able to think about differentiating sprains and strains. Again, a sprain is an injury to a ligament, and a strain is an injury to a muscle or a tendon.

If you have suffered an injury, taken the time to come and see us at Balance Physical Therapy, so we can determine if your injury is a sprain or strain. We have two locations to serve you: Monterey and Salinas.