What is the difference between a sprain and a strain? There’s nothing worse than dealing with an injury that stops you from doing the things you love, and the key to fast recovery is a proper diagnosis. Here’s a brief guide to help you tell the difference between a muscle sprain and a strain.

What is a Sprain?

Sprains are physical injuries to the ligament – the tough, fibrous tissue that joins bones together at joints. Ligaments can stretch and tear when a joint bends too far in an awkward direction. The most common type of sprain occurs in the ankle when the foot accidentally rolls over.

What is a Strain?

A muscle strain (or pulled muscle) is an injury to the muscle or tendon, the fibrous tissue connecting muscles to bones, or the muscle fibres themselves. Strains often happen when you stretch your muscles beyond their limits or force them to contract too quickly. One of the most common types of strain is in the calf or hamstring from running too aggressively.

What about a muscle tear versus a strain? A muscle tear is a more serious injury where the muscle fibres rupture during an accident or trauma.

How Do i Know Whether i Have a Muscle Strain or Sprain?

The symptoms of a sprain and strain can be similar, making it hard to tell them apart, but there are a few key differences you can watch out for:


  • Pain at the time of injury
  • Swelling and stiffness in the joint
  • Difficulty moving the joint


  • Pain at the time of injury (often in the muscle itself)
  • Swelling and bruising in the muscle
  • Difficulty moving or contracting the muscle

If you’re unsure whether you’ve suffered a sprain or strain, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and see a physiotherapist or doctor for an assessment. Even mild symptoms can hide a more serious injury; the sooner you receive treatment, the faster you recover.

How Do You Treat Sprains and Strains?

The RICE method can help alleviate and treat mild sprains and strains:

  • Rest: Take a break from any activity that causes pain or swelling.
  • Ice: Apply ice to the injured area for 15-20 minutes, three to four times daily.
  • Compression: Apply a compression bandage to minimize swelling.
  • Elevation: Elevate the injured limb to reduce swelling.

You may need to apply for physiotherapy rehabilitation exercises for more severe sprains and strains. The right rehabilitation exercises can help speed the healing process and reduce re-injury risk.

Causes of Sprains and Strains

Their causes are another difference between sprains and strains. Since they occur in the joints, awkwardly falling, landing on, or twisting your hand or foot often causes wrist or ankle sprains. Those who often run or engage in other athletic activities are at a higher risk of spraining joints. 

Meanwhile, lifting heavy objects is one of the most common causes of strains. Heavy lifting can overextend the muscle. Strains also stem from repetitive motion and sitting or standing in an awkward position for too long. 

Potential Risk Factors 

Although sprains and strains can happen to anyone at any time, some are more at risk than others. For example, being out of shape or failing to exercise regularly can make your body, including joints and muscles, more susceptible to injury. 

Other potential risk factors include:

  • Improper equipment: Using outdated or worn-out gym equipment increases your chance of injury, especially for sprains and strains. Properly maintaining shoes and other equipment can help protect you from unexpected injury. 
  • A lack of rest: If you lack proper rest, you’ll feel more tired throughout the day. As a result, you could have improper form when doing exercises and cause ligament or muscle injuries. 
  • Unsafe environments: Slippery, wet, or icy surfaces drastically increase your risk of injury. While you can’t always control this, you can take extra precautions when walking across questionable surfaces. 

Can You Prevent Sprains and Strains?

When it comes to a sprain vs strain, you can take certain preventative steps to lower your risk of either injury. While these types of injuries are often accidental and unexpected, you can take certain steps to reduce your risk of injury. 

Don’t Skip Stretching

Whether doing your daily workout or participating in an intense athletic event, stretching first is crucial. Stretching and warming up with a few light activities helps your joints and muscles prepare for the upcoming activity, reducing the risk of injury.

Wear the Right Gear

An easy way to avoid a major or mild sprain is by wearing the right shoes when working out. You can protect your soft tissues and joints in the ankles and knees with proper foot support.

Stay Active

A lack of routine exercise increases your risk of injury. Exercising regularly and doing stability exercises can help strengthen your muscles and joints, reducing the risks of sprains and strains.

Contact Your Trusted Physiotherapy Clinic Today

Now that you know the difference between a muscle sprain and a strain, you can start the road to recovery. At We-Fix-U Physiotherapy Clinic in BowmanvilleOshawaPeterboroughPort Hope, and Cobourg, we see a lot of patients with sprains and strains. Our team of expert physiotherapists in Bowmanville can treat a wide range of physical injuries. If you’re ever in doubt, give us a call or book an appointment online today.

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