Sprains and strains are common injuries that share similar signs and symptoms, but involve different parts of your body.
A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments — the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together in your joints. The most common location for a sprain is in your ankle.
A strain is a stretching or tearing of muscle or tendon. A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscles to bones. Strains often occur in the lower back and in the hamstring muscle in the back of your thigh.
Initial treatment for both sprains and strains includes rest, ice, compression and elevation. Mild sprains and strains can be successfully treated at home. Severe sprains and strains sometimes require surgery to repair torn ligaments, muscles or tendons.
A sprain occurs when you overextend or tear a ligament while severely stressing a joint. Sprains often occur in the following circumstances:
- Ankle — Walking or exercising on an uneven surface
- Knee — Pivoting during an athletic activity
- Wrist — Landing on an outstretched hand during a fall
- Thumb — Skiing injury or overextension when playing racquet sports, such as tennis
There are two types of strains: acute and chronic. An acute strain occurs when a muscle becomes strained or pulled — or may even tear — when it stretches unusually far or abruptly. Acute strains often occur in the following ways:
- Slipping on ice
- Running, jumping or throwing
- Lifting a heavy object or lifting in an awkward position
A chronic strain results from prolonged, repetitive movement of a muscle. This may occur on the job or during sports, such as:
Signs and symptoms will vary, depending on the severity of the injury.
- Limited ability to move the affected joint
- At the time of injury, you may hear or feel a “pop” in your joint
- Muscle spasms
- Limited ability to move the affected muscle
When to see a doctor
Mild sprains and strains can be treated at home. But you should see a doctor if you:
- Can’t walk more than four steps without significant pain
- Can’t move the affected joint
- Have numbness in any part of the injured area