8 Things You Should Know about Strains and Sprains

Strains and sprains happen to elite athletes — and they can happen to you. What are strains and sprains?

► The terms strain and sprain are not interchangeable.


► A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. Your tendons are the cords of fiber that connect your muscles to your bones. As an example, you can feel your Achilles tendon above your heel.

Strains can vary in severity. You may simply overstretch a muscle or tendon, or you may tear a muscle or tendon. Inflammation of the muscle or tendon can also cause a strain.

You can get a strain from an injury. We call this an acute strain. 

You can get a strain from overuse of the muscles or tendons. We call this a chronic strain. It happens when your muscles and tendons make a specific movement over and over, such running. You can also get a muscle strain from something as simple as lifting a heavy object without using proper technique. 

Strains are most common in the back and the hamstring muscle (the large muscle at the back of the thigh).

Contact sports can put you at risk for strains. You can also get strains in your hands and arms from non-contact activities such as tennis, gymnastics, rowing, golf and other sports where you need to use your grip.

► The signs of a strain include pain in the area of the strain, limited motion around the strain, muscle spasms and sometimes muscle weakness or limited function in the injured area. You may also notice localized swelling, cramping or inflammation.

If the strain is more severe, such as with a partial or complete tear of the muscle or tendon, the injured area can be very painful and movement can be extremely limited.


► A sprain is a stretch and/or tear of one or more ligaments. Your ligaments are the cords of fiber that connect your bones at the joints.

Sprains can vary in severity. A sprain can involve a partial or complete tear, and more than one ligament can be involved.

Sprains can occur in the legs and arms — the most common joint to sprain is the ankle.

► The signs of a sprain include localized pain, swelling, bruising, instability of the joint or affected area, and loss of joint movement and use. These symptoms can vary depending on how severe the injury is. Some people feel a pop or tear when the sprain happens.

► If you have a joint injury, you should see your health care professional if you notice:

  • Severe pain with the inability to put any weight on the injured joint.
  • The joint doesn’t move.
  • The injured joint looks crooked or has lumps or bumps (other than swelling) that you don’t see on the uninjured joint.
  • You can’t walk more than four steps without a lot of pain.
  • The injured limb gives way when you try to use it.
  • Numbness in the injured area.
  • Redness around the injured area or spreading out from there. 

You should also see a health care provider if:

  • You have an injury in a joint that you’ve injured before.
  • You have pain, swelling or redness on a bony part of your foot.

Around 628,000 sprains happen each year. If you’re prone to ankle sprains, visit with a physiotherapist about exercises you can do to strengthen your ankles, which will help prevent future sprains.

► Treatment for strains and sprains is similar.

The first strain or sprain treatment goal is to reduce swelling and pain. Your health care provider may recommend an over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory to help with that. 

RICE is an effective treatment approach for the first 24 to 48 hours: 

  • Rest — Reduce use of the affected joint or muscle area. If the injury is in your lower extremities, crutches or a cane may be helpful.
  • Ice — Apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time. Repeat this four to eight times a day. Don’t leave the ice on more than 20 minutes or you’ll risk frostbite.

    You can use a plastic bag of crushed ice or a cold pack to cool the injury. Wrap your ice or cold pack in a towel to protect your skin.
  • Compression — You can use elastic wraps, boots made to support such injuries, air casts or splints to provide compression. Check with your health care provider for guidance on compression. 
  • Elevation — As practical, keep the injured area elevated above your heart. If the injury is in an your leg or arm, you can use a pillow to cushion it. Using elevation will help reduce swelling. 

The next step in treatment is rehabilitation. The goal is to help the affected area heal properly and restore normal function.

Your health care provider may recommend an exercise program that will help prevent stiffness, improve the range of motion and return the joint’s and muscles’ flexibility and strength. Physical therapy may also be prescribed.

By following the recommendations of your health care provider, after rehabilitation, you should be back to your normal self and have your range of motion back.

► You can take steps to prevent strains and sprains. The National Institutes of Health recommend you:

  • Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet that keeps your muscles strong.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Do stretching exercises daily.
  • Take measures to prevent falls. Keep stairways, walkways, yards and driveways free of clutter. Anchor area rugs. Put salt or sand on icy sidewalks and driveways.
  • Ensure you’re in good physical condition to play your sport or participate in your fitness activity.
  • Don’t exercise or play sports when tired or in pain.
  • Warm up and stretch before participating in any sport or exercise.
  • Wear shoes that fit properly and are appropriate for your activities.
  • Replace athletic shoes when the tread wears out or the heel is worn on one side.
  • Wear appropriate protective equipment when playing a sport.
  • If you’re a runner, run on even surfaces that reduce the chances of an ankle injury.

Meet the Author

Paul Anthony Fagan, DO is an Orthopedic surgeon and Sports Medicine specialist at Aurora Medical Center in Oshkosh, WI 

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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