The difference between a sprain and a strain

Sprain and strains can both be pretty painful, but what’s the difference? People often use these words interchangeably, but here’s what they actually mean:1
  • Sprain: a stretch or tear in a ligament, the bands of tissues connecting your bones to your joints
  • Strain: a stretch or tear in a muscle or tendon
Here are some of the most common symptoms of both:2

Common symptoms of sprains Common symptoms of strains
Swelling Swelling
Bruising Muscle spasm
Pain around infected joint Limited flexibility
Limited flexibility Pain around infected joint
Difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion (i.e. you can’t move it a certain way) Difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion (i.e. you can’t move it a certain way)


Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s look at how you can avoid spraining or straining your ankle or wrist (or any other part of your body).

What can cause sprains or strains?


Sprains are fairly common and can be caused by a variety of things. Twisting, falling, or anything else that forces your joint out of position can cause a sprain. The most common causes of sprains happen when someone falls and lands on an arm, falls over the side of their foot (can be caused by ill-fitting high heels), or twists a knee in the wrong direction.3


Strains are different to sprains as they can happen suddenly or develop over a few days or weeks. They can be caused by a recent injury, overstressing the muscles (i.e. during a high-intensity workout) or lifting heavy objects the wrong way.3

How to avoid getting sprains and strains

You can help prevent getting a sprain or strain by:4
  • Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet to keep muscles strong
  • Maintaining a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index)
  • Wearing shoes that fit properly, and getting new shoes if the heel wears down on one side
  • Exercising every day
  • Avoiding exercise or playing sports when fatigued or in pain
  • Warming up and stretching properly before exercising or playing a sport
  • Wearing protective equipment when playing a sport

Treatment for sprains and strains

Whether you have a sprain or strain, the way you treat them is the same. Reducing swelling and pain is the priority for the first day or so, and doctors usually say to:5
  • Rest the injured area. If your injury is on the ankle or knee, your doctor may recommend that you use crutches
  • Put ice on the injury for 20 minutes four to eight times per day
  • Compress the injury using bandages, casts, boots, or splints (your doctor will tell you which one is right for your injury)
  • Keep the injury raised on a pillow whilst you’re laying down
  • Take painkillers on the advice of your doctor (i.e. aspirin or ibuprofen).

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Last updated: 9 June 2020

Bone, Joint & Muscle HealthConditions