The terms strains and sprains are often used interchangeably, but in medical jargon they actually refer to different injuries. In simple terms, a sprain is damage to ligaments while a strain refers to muscles. Both sprains and strains injuries are likely to occur during sports activities.
What are Strains?
A strain is often referred to as a “pulled muscle.” It is caused by lifting heavy objects, overstretching during exercise or tearing as the muscle suddenly contracts. It is a very painful condition with sudden onset. As well as straining muscles in the hamstring (back of the thigh), other common strains occur in the neck or back muscles.
Strains also refer to damaged tendons and fasciae. Tendons, fasciae and ligaments are all made of collagen and are strong and stretchy. Their different names refer to which parts of the body they connect. Tendons (also called sinews) connect muscle to bone and withstand tension. Fasciae are fibrous tissues wrapped around a muscle or organ.
Strains fall into three categories in terms of severity:
- Grade-1 strain causes some inflammation, swelling and mild discomfort
- Grade-2 strain is characterized by swelling, severe inflammation and possibly discoloration or bruising due to hemorrhaging
- Grade-3 strain is the most severe and may disguise a fracture or more serious injury, which may need surgery. A doctor should be consulted if you feel you have a Grade-3 strain
How do Strains and Sprains Differ?
Each year over 600,000 people reported ankle sprains in the U.S. alone. A sprain refers to damaged ligaments, which are fibrous bands of tissue connecting bones. Ligaments stabilize joints and help prevent excessive movement within the ankle, wrist, thumb and knee joints.
A sprain occurs when a joint is stretched beyond its normal capacity and you may hear a “pop” as the joint is sprained. This usually occurs during exercise or sports activity. Ligaments in the joint are torn or over-stretched when you suddenly change direction, land awkwardly, receive a sudden blow or collide with a solid object. Ouch!
A Grade-1 sprain is when a ligament is painfully overstretched or torn but does not cause any instability within the joint itself. There may be bruising, pain and swelling but the joint will still bear weight
A Grade-2 sprain is more serious tearing of the ligament accompanied by moderate pain, swelling and bruising. It may be difficult to support a person’s weight. An x-ray is recommended to check whether a fracture also occurred.
A Grade-3 sprain is when there is a complete rupture of the ligament in the joint. It causes immediate loss of function and severe pain and swelling. The patient will not be able to apply any pressure or weight to the affected limb may require surgery.
How to Treat Strains and Sprains
If you suffer from strains and sprains, follow our advice for RICE therapy. This includes resting the injury, applying ice, using a compression bandage and elevating the injured limb.