Updated: Jul 7
A joint sprain is the overstretching or tearing of ligaments. A joint strain is the overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons.
Ligaments are the bands of tissue that connect two bones together in a joint. Tendons are the dense fibrous cords of tissue that connect bones to muscles.
The most common location for a sprain is the ankle joint while most common locations for a muscle strain are the hamstring muscle and the lower back.
The symptoms of a sprain and a strain are very similar.
Common symptoms of sprains
• bruising • pain around the affected joint • swelling • limited flexibility • difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion
Common symptoms of strains
• muscle spasm • pain around the affected joint • swelling • limited flexibility • difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion.
The main difference is that with a sprain you may have bruising around the affected joint, whereas with a strain, you may have spasms in the affected muscle.
Doctors often diagnose a sprain or strain by excluding other causes for your symptoms. After a brief physical exam, your doctor may request an X-ray. An X-ray will rule out any breaks or fractures.
If the X-ray isn’t conclusive, your doctor might request another type of imaging test called an MRI. An MRI can give your doctor a very detailed view of the joint. An MRI might reveal very small or thin breaks that an X-ray can’t identify.
If neither the MRI nor X-ray reveals any breaks or injuries to the bone, your doctor will likely diagnose a sprain or strain.
Mild strains and mild sprains are treated with the same technique. This technique is known as RICE. RICE stands for:
Rest: Stay off the affected joint, or try not to use it while it heals. This will give the joint time to heal.
Ice: Ice helps reduce swelling and inflammation. Never apply ice directly to your skin. Instead, wrap a thin towel or piece of clothing around a bag of ice. Leave it on the affected area for 20 minutes, then remove the ice for 20 minutes. Repeat as much as you can for the first 24 to 48 hours.Compression:
Compression will help reduce the swelling. Wrap the affected joint in a bandage or trainer’s tape. Do not wrap too tightly, however, or you can reduce the blood supply.
Elevation: Try to keep the affected joint elevated above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling. If your knee or ankle is affected, that may mean you need to stay in bed or on the couch for up to two days after your injury. If you can’t keep it as high as your heart, parallel to the ground is also OK.
For the first 24 to 48 hours after your injury, RICE may make you more comfortable and reduce signs and symptoms.
More severe strains and sprains may require surgery to repair damaged or torn ligaments, tendons, or muscles. If you experience any of the following, see a doctor about your sprain or strain:
difficulty walking or standing without paininability to move or flex the affected joint feeling numbness or tingling around the joint.
These tips may help you reduce your chances of a sprain or strain:
Stretch. Working out or playing sports on cold muscles isn’t good for your joints. Warm up, stretch, and give your joints time to prepare for physical activity.
Exercise regularly. Moderate activity every day is better than aggressive activity only once or twice a week. This keeps your muscles limber and flexible, so they’re able to recover and strengthen over time. If you can’t exercise 30 full minutes each day, break it up into three 10-minute periods of exercise. Even a quick walk during lunch is enough to help.
Be cautious. When it’s raining, icy, or snowing outside, walk carefully. Wear shoes with good tread and don’t rush your steps.
Take breaks. Sitting or standing for too long or doing repetitive motions can put strain on your muscles. Take regular breaks, stretch, and try to give your muscles a break when you can.
Invest in good equipment. If you’re serious about exercise or sports, you need to be serious about your equipment, too. Ill-fitting, poorly made, or worn out equipment won’t provide you with the support you need. To take care of your joints, you need to take care of your equipment.