Discover the difference between a sprain and a strain.

Sliding into second base, going in for a breakaway layup, running on an uneven trail, overstretching, falling, or even dancing at a wedding can cause a sprain or strain. Sprains and strains are common injuries that can be caused by a variety of physical activities or movements. Although they can be sustained during the same activities, sprains and strains are different injuries that affect different anatomy.

What Is a Sprain?

A sprain is caused by stretching or tearing a ligament, or the connective tissue between bones. Ligaments help support your 360 joints, enabling you to move your elbows, knees, hips, and other parts of the body.

Sprains can be mild, moderate, or severe, but symptoms of all three types of sprains commonly include:

  • Bruising
  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Swelling

Sprains can be caused by direct or indirect trauma to a joint, such as a fall or a hit. You will typically feel a pop or tear in the joint when a sprain occurs. A severe sprain can immediately cause extreme pain because the ligament tears completely, making the joint nonfunctional. Moderate sprains are partial ligament tears that create unstable joints. A mild sprain stretches the ligament, which does not loosen the joint.

What Is a Strain?

Strains are injuries of your muscles or your tendons, which connect muscles to bone. Typically caused by overuse of muscles and tendons, symptoms of strains can include:

  • Cramping
  • Inflammation
  • Muscle spasm
  • Muscle weakness
  • Pain
  • Swelling

Severe strains can cause your muscle and/or tendon to be partially or completely torn, leading to debilitation. Moderate strains can partially affect muscle function since the muscle or tendon is likely only slightly torn. If you have a mild strain, your muscle or tendon is slightly stretched, not torn.

How Can I Recover From a Sprain or Strain?

Recovery times for sprains and strains can vary from person to person. The R.I.C.E. method typically helps with symptoms such as pain and inflammation. R.I.C.E. stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

If symptoms persist or worsen, see your doctor immediately. Severe sprains and strains may require surgery or physical therapy.

For more information on sprains and strains, check out this UPMC On Topic video with foot and ankle specialist MaCalus Hogan, MD.

UPMC On Topic | Ankle Sprains

Editor's Note: This gallery was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .