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Sprain or strain? Learn the difference

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Is it a sprain or a strain?  AP Photo/Bohram Mark Sobhani

Sprains and strains are some of the most common injuries suffered by people participating in sports and fitness. Do you know the difference between the two?

A sprain is a traumatic injury to a ligament. Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect bone to bone. When a joint is forced beyond its normal limits, ligamentous tissue can be stretched and torn. The joints that are most vulnerable to sprains in sports are the ankles, knees, and shoulders.  To see an illustration of a ligament, click here.

A strain is a stretch, tear, or rip in the muscle or adjacent tissue such as the fascia or muscle tendons. Tendons are bundles of fibrous tissue that connect muscle to bone. The cause of a muscle strain is often unknown. Most often, a strain is produced by an abnormal muscle contraction. The muscles that have the highest incidence of strain in sports are the hamstring group, calf muscles, quadriceps group, hip flexors, hip adductor group, back muscles, and the deltoid and rotator cuff group of the shoulder.  To see an illustration of a tendon, click here.


Sprains and strains are classified as first, second, and third degree. Here are the characteristics of each:

First degree sprain or strain:
• Minimal pain
• Local tenderness
• Mild swelling and bruising
• No loss of function
• Microtearing of fibers
 

Second degree sprain or strain:
• Moderate pain
• Moderate swelling and bruising
• Joint instability and/or muscle weakness
• Moderate loss of function
• More extensive rupturing of tissues

Third degree sprain or strain:
• Severe pain
• Severe swelling and bruising
• Loss of range of motion
• Major loss of function
• Complete instability of joint and major tissue damage

While there is a difference in the definition of strains and sprains, the initial treatment for both remains the same – rest, ice, compression, and elevation.  If you suspect a second or third degree sprain or strain, or you are unsure how to treat a sprain or strain, seek medical attention.
 

Related articles:  R.I.C.E., Ankle sprains

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