If you’ve ever tried to define sprains and strains but can’t quite identify the difference between the two, you’re not alone. These two terms are often used interchangeably to describe overstretching or tearing of soft tissues in and around your joints. There is a key difference, and knowing what that is can help you differentiate between joint sprains and strains.

A joint sprain is the overstretching or tearing of ligaments. Ligaments are the bands of tissue that connect two bones together in a joint. The most common location for a sprain is the ankle joint.

A joint strain is the overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons. Tendons are the dense fibrous cords of tissue that connect bones to muscles. The most common locations for a muscle strain are the hamstring muscle and the lower back.

The symptoms of a sprain and a strain are very similar. That’s because the injuries themselves are very similar. It’s no wonder the two conditions are frequently confused.

Common symptoms of sprainsCommon symptoms of strains
• bruising
• pain around the affected joint
• swelling
• limited flexibility
• difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion
• muscle spasm
• pain around the affected joint
• swelling
• limited flexibility
• difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion

The main difference is that with a sprain you may have bruising around the affected joint, whereas with a strain, you may have spasms in the affected muscle.

Our bodies work hard day after day, so an occasional strain or sprain isn’t uncommon. Certain situations make you more likely to injure your joints. These include:

  • athletic activities or exercise, including running or jogging
  • accidents, such as falling or slipping
  • lifting heavy objects
  • overexerting yourself
  • sitting or standing in an awkward position
  • prolonged repetitive motion

Most commonly affected joints include:

Anyone at any point can experience a sprain or strain, but certain risk factors increase your odds for overstretching a joint. These risk factors include:

  • Being out of shape. Lack of proper conditioning leaves your muscles and joints weak and unable to fully support your movements.
  • Using improper equipment. Equipment that is worn out or ill-fitting will increase your risk for a sprain or strain. It’s important you keep your shoes and any necessary gear maintained.
  • Not warming up. Warming up and cooling down after exercise or athletic activity helps you prevent injury. Warming up gently stretches the muscles and increases your range of motion. A cool down stretch helps strengthen your muscles for better joint support.
  • Being tired. When you’re tired, you don’t carry your body properly. Being tired means you’re less likely to practice good form. Schedule days off between exercise so your body can rest and heal.
  • Your environment.Wet, slippery, or icy surfaces are treacherous for walking. These aren’t risk factors you can control, but being aware of when they’re around will help you avoid an injury.

Doctors often diagnose a sprain or strain by excluding other causes for your symptoms. After a brief physical exam, your doctor may request an X-ray. An X-ray will rule out any breaks or fractures.

If the X-ray isn’t conclusive, your doctor might request another type of imaging test called an MRI. An MRI can give your doctor a very detailed view of the joint. An MRI might reveal very small or thin breaks that an X-ray can’t identify.

If neither the MRI nor X-ray reveals any breaks or injuries to the bone, your doctor will likely diagnose a sprain or strain.

Mild strains and mild sprains are treated with the same technique. This technique is known as RICE. RICE stands for:

  • Rest: Stay off the affected joint, or try not to use it while it heals. This will give the joint time to heal.
  • Ice: Ice helps reduce swelling and inflammation. Never apply ice directly to your skin. Instead, wrap a thin towel or piece of clothing around a bag of ice. Leave it on the affected area for 20 minutes, then remove the ice for 20 minutes. Repeat as much as you can for the first 24 to 48 hours.
  • Compression: Compression will help reduce the swelling. Wrap the affected joint in a bandage or trainer’s tape. Do not wrap too tightly, however, or you can reduce the blood supply.
  • Elevation: Try to keep the affected joint elevated above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling. If your knee or ankle is affected, that may mean you need to stay in bed or on the couch for up to two days after your injury. If you can’t keep it as high as your heart, parallel to the ground is also OK.

For the first 24 to 48 hours after your injury, RICE may make you more comfortable and reduce signs and symptoms.

More severe strains and sprains may require surgery to repair damaged or torn ligaments, tendons, or muscles. If you experience any of the following, see a doctor about your sprain or strain:

  • difficulty walking or standing without pain
  • inability to move or flex the affected joint
  • feeling numbness or tingling around the joint

For mild strains or sprains, most people can return to limited activities in two to three days. If it’s a moderate injury, you may need a week. Even when you feel up to activities again, take extra precaution to protect the joint. You might want to tape the joint or support it with a brace for a bit until the tissue has had time to heal.

Severe strains and sprains may need a lot more time to heal. You may also need physical therapy to help you regain strength and range of motion. This will be especially true if your injury requires any type of surgery.

If you’re still having issues with the injured joint two weeks after your accident, you may need to visit your doctor. Lingering pain or difficulty moving the joint could be a sign of a different problem.

Some injuries will occur no matter how in shape or prepared you are. After all, accidents happen. Keeping these tips in mind may help you reduce your chances of a sprain or strain:

  1. Stretch. Working out or playing sports on cold muscles isn’t good for your joints. Warm up, stretch, and give your joints time to prepare for physical activity.
  2. Exercise regularly. Moderate activity every day is better than aggressive activity only once or twice a week. This keeps your muscles limber and flexible, so they’re able to recover and strengthen over time. If you can’t exercise 30 full minutes each day, break it up into three 10-minute periods of exercise. Even a quick walk during lunch is enough to help.
  3. Be cautious. When it’s raining, icy, or snowing outside, walk carefully. Wear shoes with good tread and don’t rush your steps.
  4. Take breaks. Sitting or standing for too long or doing repetitive motions can put strain on your muscles. Take regular breaks, stretch, and try to give your muscles a break when you can.
  5. Invest in good equipment. If you’re serious about exercise or sports, you need to be serious about your equipment, too. Ill-fitting, poorly made, or worn out equipment won’t provide you with the support you need. To take care of your joints, you need to take care of your equipment.

Learn more: The 5-minute daily stretching routine »