Sprains vs. Strains: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve ever used “sprain” and “strain” interchangeably, you’re not alone. These two terms are often used to describe overstretching or tearing of soft tissue in and around your joint. Knowing the critical difference can help you distinguish between these two injuries.


A joint sprain is the tearing or overstretching of ligaments, which are bands of tissue that connect bones in a joint. The most common area for this injury is the ankle joint.

A joint strain, on the other hand, is the tearing or overstretching of muscles and tendons — dense fibrous cords of tissue that connect your bones to different muscles. The most common areas for a muscle strain are the hamstring and lower back.

Since the injuries themselves are very similar, the symptoms are often confused. The main differentiator is that with a sprain, you may experience bruising around the affected joint, whereas if you had a strain, you could have spasms in the affected muscle.

Risk Factors

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


After a brief physical exam, your doctor might request an X-ray, which would rule out any breaks or fractures. If the results aren’t conclusive, they might require an MRI, another imaging test. An MRI gives any medical professional a very detailed view of your joint, revealing very small or thin breaks an X-ray wouldn’t be able to identify. If nothing comes up, your doctor will most likely diagnose a sprain or a strain.


For severe injuries, we are proud to offer water therapy near Horsham to help get you back on your feet. With that said, mild strains and sprains are treated with a technique known as RICE, which stands for the following;

  • Rest: Stay off the affected joint to give it time to heal.
  • Ice: Ice helps reduce swelling and inflammation, although you shouldn’t apply ice directly to your skin.
  • Compression: Compression will reduce the swelling, but wrapping too tight can decrease vital blood supply.
  • Elevation: Keep the affected joint elevated above your heart level.

While people suffering from mild strains or sprains can usually return to limited activities in a matter of days, we understand that sometimes discomfort levels can become debilitating. If you’re experiencing prolonged pain, you need to seek out the assistance of physical therapy professionals. For more questions about our treatment options, including aquatic therapy services near Hatboro Horsham, contact Total Performance Physical Therapy today!


We’re Hiring!
We Have an Immediate Opening for a Physical Therapist in Harleysville. Resumes Can Be Sent to linda@totalperformancept.com

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