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Sprains vs. Strains. What's the Difference

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What’s the difference between a Strain and Sprain you ask. Well to be quick and general, a sprain tends be a stretch and/or tear of a ligament which is the fibrous band of connective tissue that joins the end of one bone to that of another. Whereas a strain tends to be an injury to muscle and/or tendon (musculo-tendinous junction) where the muscle starts to become tendon and where the tendons connect muscle to bone. Strains tend to occur due to a quick tear, twist or pull of the muscle as well as via an overstretching or over contraction.
What causes these sprains and strains? Typically a sprain can be due to a fall or twist such as an ankle, knee or wrist sprain and a strain can happen suddenly or develop over time. A sudden strain can happen with lifting a heavy box, playing a sport and over exerting your body, slipping on ice vs. a strain, which can happen over time due to prolonged repetitive movements of the muscle and tendon with inadequate breaks.
Pretty much anyone can be at risk for sprains and strains. No one is safe! There are some factors that can put you at risk such as being in poor physical condition, which leaves your muscles weak and less flexible thus placing a person at a greater risk of sustaining an injury. Other factors, which can place a person at, risk for a strain or sprain includes an in-adequate warm-up before exercise or activity to loosen up muscles and joint range of motion. Fatigue is another cause of sprains or strains such that when muscles are tired they typically may not be providing the right support for your joints and thus can succumb to the stress your body is exerting leading to a sprain/strain. Poor technique may also be a factor for a sprain or strain.
Common symptoms of sprains include pain, swelling, bruising, and limited ability to move the affected joint. Symptoms of a strain are fairly similar to a sprain in that there is pain, swelling, and limited ability to move affected muscle, along with muscle spasms/tightness.
Strains and sprains tend to be classified by degree of severity ranging from first to third degree. The differences in degrees reflect the degree of overstretching or damaging force applied to the tendon, muscle or ligament.
  • First Degree Sprain – mild stretching of ligaments. Pain maybe mild with mild dysfunction of the tissue or body part and minimal to no swelling
  • Second Degree Sprain – stretching and partial tearing of fibers in the ligament but the joint is still held together and is stable. There maybe pain, swelling, bruising and moderate dysfunction of the tissue or body part.
  • Third Degree Sprain – complete tear or rupture of the ligament with an unstable joint, this is characterized by severe pain, bruising and loss of function of the body part affected. Third degree sprains may require surgery and immobilization.
The grading for muscle strains is also graded with three degrees.
  • First Degree Strains occur due to mild straining of muscle fibers where a few fibers have been stretched or torn – micro-tears. Muscles will be painful and tender but mobility should be normal.
  • Second Degree Strains tend to have a greater number of fibers stretched or torn. Pain tends to be more severe along with tenderness and mild swelling and bruising.
  • Third Degree Strains occur when muscles have been split or torn away from the tendon leading to loss of function of the affect muscle. Like third degree sprains a third degree strain may require surgery to repair.
To be safe, it is important with sprains and strains to be assessed, treated and managed with care from a chiropractor, physiotherapist or medical doctor along with proper home-care instructions of rest, ice, compression, and elevation. RICE
Given that No One is safe from having a sprain or strain there are some tips to help reduce your risk of injury such as making sure you are limber and stretch before doing any strenuous activity, work or lifting. Making sure your body is conditioned properly with regular strengthening and conditioning exercises to build muscle strength, in addition warming up before any kind of activity can also help prevent a strain or sprain.