Strains and sprains are words that are used almost interchangeably when describing injuries, however they each have quite distinct meanings. The most straightforward explanation is that a “strain” refers to an injury in a muscle or tendon, while a “sprain” refers to an injury to a ligament. Here we describe what that means and how we treat strains and sprains differently.
Ligaments are fibrous tissues that connect and hold bones to other bones at your joints. These are very strong parts of your anatomy and provide large amounts of support and stability to the body.
Some ligaments are so strong that sometimes a bone will break before the ligament will tear. When ligament fibres do tear, the nearby joint can feel unstable as it has lost some of its structural support.
A torn ligament will usually become painful and swollen, it may appear red and warm to touch and occasionally there will be some bruising. The pain will be worse with movement or if the ligament is placed under more stress. Occasionally, if a ligament has torn all the way through, the pain will not be as severe as it is with a partial tear.
Your physiotherapist can grade the severity of a ligament sprain, which will help guide treatment and expected recovery times.
Muscle strains are easy to confuse with ligament sprains, however, there are a few tell-tale differences. Following a muscle tear, it is more likely that you’ll feel weakness rather than instability. The pain will also be isolated over the muscle, rather than near a joint.
An injury to a ligament will be tender over the site of the ligament and special tests can be done to test for any joint laxity. Treatment is also slightly different as sprains will need more support and will sometimes even need to be taped or braced, whereas muscle strains will benefit from gentle movements earlier. In both cases, following the basic principles of rest, ice, compression and elevation is great advice in the early stages of any injury. Applying heat is not recommended until at least two or three days after the injury.
It is important to seek a professional opinion when recovering from both a strain and a sprain. It is very easy to re-injure an area while it's healing if undertaking too much activity too early and without correct rehabilitation. Speak to your physiotherapist for more information.