Strains and Sprains: What's the Difference?

Medically Reviewed

Q. What’s the difference between a strain and a sprain?

A. Although the soft-tissue injuries sound alike and can cause many of the same symptoms, the difference between a strain and a sprain is the part of the body affected.

A strain involves injury to either a muscle or a tendon, which is a strong fibrous band that links muscle to bone.

A sprain occurs when you stretch or tear a ligament, also a fibrous band of tissue, but one that connects two bones to each other. A fall is a common cause of a sprain, often affecting the ankle. The wrists and knees are also vulnerable to sprains.

Strains usually happen as the result of a twisting or pulling motion, perhaps after engaging in a vigorous contact sport or lifting something heavy. Your feet, back, and hamstring muscles are common sites for strains.

If you have a strain, you’ll likely experience pain at the injury site, muscle weakness or spasms, inflammation, limited motion, and possibly swelling. Your first step is to reduce the swelling and pain by following the RICE formula (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) for one to two days, possibly accompanied by an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Like a strain, a sprain is characterized by pain, swelling, bruising, inflammation, and immobility, and the RICE formula may be all that’s needed. No matter whether it’s a strain or a sprain, if your pain is intense and you’re having trouble getting around, see a doctor as soon as possible.