Apex Sports Clinic

Sprains vs. Strains: Understanding the Difference and How to Treat Them

Introduction:

Sprains and strains are common soft-tissue injuries that can cause pain, limit an individual’s ability to move and decrease their quality of life. Sprains and strains sound similar and are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct injuries that affect different parts of the body and require different treatments. 

In this blog, we shall delve into the differences between sprains and strains, their causes, symptoms, and the best treatment options. 

Understanding Sprains 

A sprain is a type of soft-tissue injury that occurs when a ligament is stretched or torn. Ligaments are the tough and strong bands of tissue connecting bones to one another, providing stability to joints and helping prevent excessive movement beyond the normal range of an individual. Sprains commonly occur in joints such as the ankles, knees, and wrists, and are particularly caused by activities that involve sudden twisting, turning, or impact.

Understanding Strains

strain is a type of soft-tissue injury that happens because of overstretching, tearing, twisting, or stressing muscles and tendons (the fibrous cords that attach muscles to bones) beyond their capacity. Strains often lead to microscopic tears in the muscle fibres.

The Difference Between Sprains & Strains 

What Do They Affect? 

Sprains: A sprain occurs when a ligament is overstretched, overstressed, or torn. Ligaments are the tough, fibrous bands of tissue that connect bones to each other or to cartilages at joints. So, sprains most commonly occur around the ankles, knees, wrists, and thumbs.

Strains: A strain happens when a muscle or tendon is stretched, torn, stressed, or twisted beyond its capacity. Tendons are the tissues that connect muscles to bones. Strains most commonly affect the legs, knees, feet, back, hamstring (back of the thigh), and groin muscles, among others. 

Symptoms 

Though both strains and sprains cause pain and swelling, reducing the range of motion, there are subtle differences in their symptoms. 

Sprains: 

The severity of the sprain will determine the intensity of these symptoms.

    • Pain around the affected joint

    • Swelling 

    • Bruising

    • Instability/ weakness in the joint

    • Limited flexibility and range of motion 

    • Difficulty in bearing weight

    • Difficulty in performing certain movements using the affected joint. 

Strains: 

    • Muscle spasms 

    • Muscle stiffness or tightness

    • Pain worsens while moving the affected muscles

    • Tenderness 

    • Swelling 

    • Cramping 

    • Reduced strength and flexibility in the affected areas. 

The main point of difference in terms of symptoms is that with sprains there could be bruising around the joint while there could be spasms or cramping in the affected areas with strains. 

Causes:

Sprains: The most common causes of sprains are falling, twisting, sudden actions, or experiencing trauma to the joint. For instance, walking/ running on uneven surfaces, twisting or pivoting suddenly, falling/ landing on the wrist/ hand, sports injuries, injuries during fitness/ physical activities, etc. 

Strains: These could be acute injuries – caused suddenly or chronic injuries – that develop slowly over time. The causes of acute strains include lifting heavy objects, falls, throwing, running, etc. Causes of chronic strains include playing sports, incorrect sporting action, repetitive movements (rowing, running, playing racquet sports, etc.), prolonged sitting or standing, etc. 

Risk Factors

Lack of proper conditioning and generally being out of shape leaves your muscles and joints weak, unable to fully support your movements.

Reduced Flexibility: Tight muscles and ligaments are less adaptable to sudden movements or forceful exertions, making them more prone to tearing or overstretching during activities.

Muscle Weakness: Weak muscles have lower ability to absorb impact and stabilize the joints, leading to increased stress on ligaments and tendons and making them more susceptible to sprains and strains.

Inadequate Warm-Up: The lack of warm-up and stretching translates into cold and stiff muscles, making them less elastic and more vulnerable to injury.

Poor Balance and Coordination in movements can lead to awkward landings, falls, or miscalculated steps, putting excessive stress on joints and ligaments and increasing the risk of sprains. 

Improper Technique: Engaging in physical activities (sports, exercise, lifting, fitness activities, etc.) with incorrect form puts undue stress on specific muscle groups and joints. This can lead to targeted overuse injuries or sprains from unbalanced forces on the joint. Improper use of equipment and not wearing safety equipment, shoes or other gear can also increase the risk of sprains and strains.

Previous Injuries and Certain Medical Conditions: If you have a history of sprains or strains in a particular joint, the ligaments or tendons in that area may be weaker or less stable, making them more prone to future injuries. Medical conditions like arthritis, osteoporosis, etc. can weaken your bones and connective tissues, making you more susceptible to sprains and strains. 

Certain Sports: Sports that involve frequent changes in direction, jumping, or sudden impacts (like basketball, soccer, football) carry a higher risk of sprains and strains due to the dynamic nature of the movements.

Age: With age, muscles and tendons naturally lose some strength and flexibility owing to wear and tear. This makes older adults more susceptible to sprains and strains, especially if they fall or engage in sudden movements. 

Fatigue: When your muscles are fatigued, they become less effective at absorbing force and maintaining stability. This increases the risk of sprains and strains, especially towards the end of a workout or long day.

Dehydration: Dehydration can affect muscle function and flexibility, making you more prone to sprains and strains. 

How Are Sprains & Strains Treated? 

Depending on the severity of the sprain or strain, it will heal within days or weeks with proper treatment. And treatment should be accompanied by rehabilitation to prevent further injuries. Here are some treatments that medical practitioners use to help you recover and heal from sprains and strains. 

Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation (RICE)

Both sprains and strains can benefit from following the RICE protocol in the acute phase of injury can help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.

    • Resting the affected area

    • Applying ice packs

    • Using compression bandages

    • Elevating the limb 

Pain Management

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Nurofen) or paracetamol (Panadol) can help reduce the pain and discomfort associated with sprains and strains but follow the recommended dosage. You must consult a healthcare professional (e.g. sports / orthopaedic doctor) if symptoms persist or worsen.

Immobilization

Immobilizing the affected area with a brace, splint, or cast may be necessary to stabilize the injured area, prevent further damage, and allow the tissues to rest and recover.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in rehabilitating sprains and strains by restoring strength, flexibility, resilience, and range of motion. A physical therapist will create a personalized program to target specific muscle groups and improve functional mobility.

Gradual Return to Activity

As the injury heals, gradually reintroduce activities and exercises instead of rushing into fitness/ sports/ regular activities. You must monitor for any signs of pain or discomfort to get immediate medical attention if there are issues. Start with gentle, low-impact movements and activities and slowly progress to more challenging activities as per your tolerance. 

Can Sprains & Strains Be Prevented? 

Yes, it is possible to prevent sprains and strains with certain preventive measures: 

    • Warm up properly before exercise or sports activities to prepare the muscles and joints for activity.

    • Use proper technique and form during sports and physical activities. Consult a personal trainer/ coach to correct your form and technique, especially at the start of your fitness journey. 

    • Incorporate strength and flexibility training into your fitness routine to improve joint stability and resilience.

    • Avoid overexertion or pushing your body through pain.

    • Maintain an active lifestyle with proper nutrition and hydration. 

    • Maintain a healthy body weight. 

By understanding the difference between sprains and strains, you will be better prepared to manage these common injuries and get back to your daily activities as soon as possible.

References: 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sprains/symptoms-causes/syc-20377938

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321807#causes-of-sprains

https://www.healthline.com/health/sprain-vs-strain#risk-factors

https://patient.info/bones-joints-muscles/sports-injuries/sprains-and-strains https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sprains-and-strains

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