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Sprains and Strains: Differences, Symptoms and Treatment


Reviewed by: Amy Hinshaw

Did your ankle twist while exercising and now you’re experiencing pain? Or are you having trouble moving a certain muscle after lifting a heavy object? 

You may be experiencing a sprain or strain.

Sprains and strains are injuries that can affect anyone and almost any part of the body. Knowing how to identify and treat these injuries can help you recover and get back to your active life faster when you experience a sprain or strain. Here, we’ll explain the differences between sprains and strains, their symptoms and treatment plans.

Sprains vs. Strains

Despite their similar sounding names, sprains and strains are different. Both sprains and strains are relatively common and can be caused by a twist or stretch that occurs in an awkward position, ore from sports, exercise or overuse. If you don’t properly warm up your body or lift heavy objects correctly, you’re more likely to experience a sprain or strain.

The main difference between the two types of injuries is what part of the body each affect. A sprain occurs when ligaments β€” the bands of tissues that connect our bones β€” are stretched too far or stretched in the wrong direction. A strain affects your muscles and tendons, the fibrous tissue that connects your bones to your muscles.


What Parts of the Body Do Sprains and Strains Affect?

Sprains and strains can occur anywhere in the body. Sprains are most common in areas of the body that are vulnerable during a fall.

The most common sprains include:

  • Ankle sprain: A sprained ankle can occur if you twist or jar your ankle suddenly. This can happen if you land awkwardly after a jump, twist the ankle while running or turns your ankle sharply while exercising on uneven ground. 
  • Knee sprain: Similar to an ankle sprain, knee sprains occur from twisting or pivoting the knee. These sprains can also occur after a fall or other blow to the knee. 
  • Wrist sprain: Wrist sprains are often caused by falling and landing on your outstretched hand. 

Strains usually occur in the same few places, including the hamstrings, quadriceps and back. Athletes and people who use and work the same muscles repetitively are at greater risk of experiencing a strain.

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Symptoms of Sprains and Strains

The symptoms of a sprain or strain can vary depending on the severity of the injury. However, it’s likely you’ve suffered a sprain or strain if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Pain, tenderness or weakness.
  • Swelling.
  • Bruising.
  • Inability to put weight on the area or use it properly.
  • Muscle spasms or cramping.
  • Instability.
  • Numbness.
  • Limited flexibility.

Degrees of Sprains and Strains

Not all sprains and strains are the same β€” some can be more severe than others. Let’s take a look at the different degrees of sprains:

  • Mild: A mild sprain only involves a little stretching of the ligaments. Symptoms of a mild sprain are often more tolerable than other more severe sprains.
  • Moderate: Moderate sprains include both stretching and minor tearing of the ligament. 
  • Severe: A severe sprain occurs when there is a full and complete tear of the ligament. Some severe sprains may require surgery.

Strains are categorized on the same scale:

  • Mild: A mild strain only slightly damages muscle fibers. 
  • Moderate: Moderate strains are more painful because they affect a greater number of muscle fibers. 
  • Severe: With a severe strain, the muscle or tendon is completely ruptured. Surgery may be required in some cases. 

The best way to properly assess your injury is to visit your local urgent care or your primary care doctor.

How to Treat Sprain and Strain Injuries 

The PRICE method is the standard first treatment for sprains and strains. While some severe sprains and strains may need more intense treatment, starting the PRICE protocol as quickly as possible after an injury can help improve your outcome regardless of the severity. 

PRICE treatment includes:

  • Protection: While you might’ve heard of β€œRICE” treatment, the P is important. To protect the injured area, immobilize it and keep weight off of the joint or muscle. If you continue to use the injured area, you may worsen your condition. Consider using a splint, brace or crutches to help protect your injury.
  • Rest: Resting helps your body in its healing process. Your body will already be working overtime to help heal your injury, so cut back on exercise or other strenuous activities.
  • Ice: Apply ice to the injured area for about 10 minutes, four to eight times a day. Do not apply ice for longer than 20 minutes, or you may cause frostbite or a cold injury. If you begin to feel uncomfortable or numb while icing, immediately remove the ice. 
  • Compression: Applying pressure to the injury reduces swelling. You want your compression bandage or other compression item to feel snug, but it should not be uncomfortable or so tight that it cuts off your circulation. 
  • Elevation: Elevation also helps to reduce swelling. A pillow under your injured area is recommended to keep it elevated. For best results, you should elevate the injured area above the heart. 

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How Long Does It Take a Sprained Ankle to Heal?

A sprained ankle’s recovery time β€” and that of any sprained body part β€” will depend on the severity of the injury. For mild injuries, you can expect to start feeling better in as little as two weeks. However, even though you may start to feel better, continue to avoid any strenuous activity for up to eight weeks to prevent further damage.

For more severe strains, recovery may take up to 12 weeks. Meanwhile, sprains that result in surgery will have an even longer recovery time. Surgically repaired sprains may take several months to properly heal. If surgery is needed for your injury, your surgeon will provide you with a more detailed timeline for recovery.

Receive Sprain and Strain Treatment at SouthStar Urgent Care

If you’re starting up new fitness routines or activities, it’s important to build up to them. Stretch and warm up before any physical activity to prevent sprains and strains. 

If you suspect you’re experiencing a sprain or strain, visit a SouthStar Urgent Care near you for a diagnosis and treatment plan. Our providers are committed to bringing you personal and effective care to help you feel better faster. Get in line, online today!