In our practice, we see a lot of patients who are confused on the difference between a strain versus a sprain. The issue is often made more confusing when you hear a sportscaster announce that an athlete was not seriously hurt and that the injury is probably just a strain or a sprain (as if the terms are interchangeable).
In Part One (of this two-part series) I will explain the definitions, and categories of, strains and sprains. In Part Two, I will give you some ideas on how to care for these injuries. Let’s start by taking a look at the definitions of strains and sprains.
Strain – an injury that affects a muscle or tendon. Muscles in the body attach to a bone through a common tendon. An acute strain (one that occurs with one set of movements) usually occurs when a muscle or tendon is either overstretched, or if there is an excessive stress to that muscle or tendon. Common symptoms of a strain include: pain, weakness, and muscle spasms at the area of the injury. Chronic strains (those that occur over time and can be repetitive) are the result of overusing the muscles and tendons without giving them adequate rest.
Sprain – an injury that affects a ligament, which is a thick band of tissue that attaches one bone to another bone. For example, ligaments in the ankle attach the lower leg to the foot enabling a person to walk on uneven surfaces, run, jump, and play sports. A sprain usually occurs when there is either a direct, or indirect, force that knocks a joint out of position, causing the ligaments to stretch, partially tear, or completely rupture. Common symptoms of a sprain include: painful movement, instability, swelling, and bruising around the area of the injury.
Categories of Strains and Sprains
A medical doctor will categorize a sprain or a strain according to the severity of the injury. A Grade I strain or sprain (mild) involves an overstretching, or minor tearing, of a muscle or ligament. A Grade II strain or sprain (moderate) is a muscle or ligament that is partially torn but is still intact. A Grade III (severe) strain or sprain is defined as a complete rupture or tear of a muscle, tendon, or ligament. Obviously, the more severe the strain or sprain, the more severe the symptoms will be, and the longer the recovery process.
As you now know, a sprain involves ligaments and a strain involves muscles, and the severity of it depends on whether it is classified as a Grade I, II, or III injury. Now that you know their definitions, keep watching for Part Two of this series, which will explain how to care for strains and sprains.