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What is the Difference Between a Sprain & a Strain?

women walking in sneakers with ankle twisted. Sprain vs. Strain.

If you’ve ever tried to define sprains and strains but can’t quite identify the difference between the two, you’re not alone. These two terms are often used interchangeably to describe overstretching or tearing of soft tissues in and around your joints. There is a key difference and knowing what that is can help you differentiate between joint sprains and strains. Symptoms A joint sprain is the overstretching or tearing of ligaments. Ligaments are the bands of tissue that connect two bones together in a joint. The most common location for a sprain is the ankle joint.

A joint strain is the overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons. Tendons are the dense fibrous cords of tissue that connect bones to muscles. The most common locations for muscle strain are the hamstring muscle and the lower back.

The symptoms of a sprain and a strain are very similar. That’s because the injuries themselves are very similar. It’s no wonder the two conditions are frequently confused.

Our bodies work hard day after day, so an occasional strain or sprain isn’t uncommon. Certain situations make you more likely to injure your joints. These include:

  • athletic activities or exercise, including running or jogging

  • accidents, such as falling or slipping

  • lifting heavy objects

  • overexerting yourself

  • sitting or standing in an awkward position

  • prolonged repetitive motion

Most commonly affected joints include:

Anyone at any point can experience a sprain or strain, but certain risk factors increase your odds of overstretching a joint. These risk factors include:

  • Being out of shape. Lack of proper conditioning leaves your muscles and joints weak and unable to fully support your movements.

  • Using improper equipment. Equipment that is worn out or ill-fitting will increase your risk for a sprain or strain. It’s important you keep your shoes and any necessary gear maintained.

  • Not warming up. Warming up and cooling down after exercise or athletic activity helps you prevent injury. Warming up gently stretches the muscles and increases your range of motion. A cool-down stretch helps strengthen your muscles for better joint support.

  • Being tired. When you’re tired, you don’t carry your body properly. Being tired means you’re less likely to practice good form. Schedule days off between exercise so your body can rest and heal.

  • Your environment. Wet, slippery, or icy surfaces are treacherous for walking. These aren’t risk factors you can control but being aware of when they’re around will help you avoid an injury.

Basic Treatment

Remember P.R.I.C.E. – five simple rules to help speed up your recovery in the first 48-72 hours of a sprain (ligament) or a strain (muscle) injury.

P is for PROTECTION. Protect the injured area from sustaining any more damage.

R is for REST. Allow the injury time to heal.

I is for ICE. Ice should be applied to an injured area as soon as possible. Use the 10/10/10 method of ice application: 10 minutes of ice; followed by 10 minutes of rest without ice; followed by 10 minutes of ice again. Do not apply heat. Ice works to reduce pain and inflammation to your injured muscles, joints, and tissues and may even slow bleeding if a tear has occurred.

C is for COMPRESSION. Use a tensor bandage to wrap the injured area. When wrapping, begin at the end furthest away from the heart.

E is for ELEVATION. If possible, raise the injured area above the level of the heart, especially at night, by putting a pillow under the injured area.

After the first 48 hours, slowly start to use the injured area again and continue icing for another day. If you are unsure of the severity of your injury, consult a chiropractor for an evaluation.

Excerpts from: Healthline Wellness and the Canadian Chiropractic Association


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