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Sprains and strains are common orthopedic injuries that are both a result of damage to the soft tissues in the body such as the muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Sprains and strains have many of the same symptoms, what is the difference between the two?

What is the Difference Between Sprains and Strains?

The main difference between sprains and strains is that a sprain involves the bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones, and a strain involves the muscle or tendons, which attach the muscle to the bone.

What are the Causes and Risk Factors?

Both sprains and strains typically happen unexpectedly from twisting or turning in a sudden and awkward motion. Common causes of sprains and strains include:

Playing Sports

The risk of sprains or strains is common in athletes from the stress of contact sports and sudden direction switches on the joints and muscles.

Too Much Physical Activity

Overuse and overtraining of the same part of the body can put repetitive stress on the tendons or muscles and increase the risk of sprains or strains.

Awkward Movements

Often times sprains or strains can happen from a sudden awkward movement during an everyday task such as:

  • Walking down the stairs and falling on an outstretched arm
  • Rolling an ankle from walking on uneven surfaces
  • Lifting a heavy object 

Common sprains or strains include ankle sprains, ligament tears in the knee, hamstring tears, achilles tendon tears, and wrist and thumb sprains.

What are the Symptoms?

Sprains and strains have a few of the same symptoms such as pain, swelling, and bruising, but there are also other symptoms typical of either a sprain or a strain.

Symptoms of a torn ligament, or sprain, include:

  • Limited range of motion with joint
  • A sudden popping sound and feeling at the time of injury
  • Instability or difficulty bearing weight 

Symptoms of muscle or tendon strains include:

  • Limited range of motion in the area of injury
  • Muscle weakness
  • Spasms and cramping in the muscle affected

How do I Prevent Injuries?

Although many ligament and muscle injuries happen unexpectedly, there are some ways to prevent sprains and strains such as:

  • Ensure a proper warm-up before practice or training
  • Strengthen the muscles to protect the joints (weight lifting, stability training)
  • Be aware of your surroundings such as slippery floors or debris when you are walking

What Treatment Options are Available?

Mild sprains and strains can be treated at home with the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevate) method. For more severe sprains or strains, making an appointment with a primary care physician, sports medicine specialist, or physical therapist is highly recommended.

In case of sudden injury, DMOS also has Urgent Injury Clinics in Ankeny and West Des Moines open 6 days a week with no appointment necessary. 


*Disclaimer: The content of this blog is for informational purposes only. Please consult your healthcare professional for any medical questions. While we make every effort to ensure the information we share is accurate, we welcome comments, suggestions, or corrections of errors. This blog should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing a “standard of care” in legal sense or basis for expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on this blog or website. In no way does listening, reading, emailing, or interacting on social media with our content establish a doctor-patient relationship. This blog is not medical advice. If necessary, please seek treatment immediately*

Melissa Merrifield

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