Your Go-To Guide For Sprains vs. Strains

With warmer weather here—finally—many of us are eager to get outside and take advantage of it. Whether your spring schedule is filled with 5Ks and races, or traveling and hiking, a drastic change in exercise or activity can be hard on your body.

To help you navigate some of those most common sports injuries, like sprains and strains, let’s take a closer look at their causes, symptoms and treatment options. This will help you to avoid these injuries all together and get you back to what you enjoy doing most this time of year.


What is it? A sprain is the overstretching or tearing of ligaments, which are the tissues that connect bones to each other and stabilize them. When a joint is forced into an unnatural position, it causes a sprain. While this type of injury is most commonly seen in ankles, it can happen to any joint, such as the wrist or knee.

What are the symptoms?
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation
  • Hampered movement
  • Tenderness
  • Bruising or redness
  • These symptoms usually last 7-10 days.

What is it? A strain is the overstretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon, which connects the muscles to the bones. It can occur from a single incident or over time. If it’s from a single incident, it’s usually the result of an instantaneous stretch or tear of the muscle or tendon, whereas, a chronic strain stems from repetitive motions over time that place stress on the muscle or tendon.

What are the symptoms?
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weakness
  • Cramping
  • Immobility
  • Pain
  • Bruising
  • Swelling
  • These symptoms usually last a few weeks.

What is it? A tear is the ripping of tissue in ligaments, muscles or tendons. While both sprains and strains cause a stretching of a ligament, muscle or tendon; in some cases the stretching can be so severe that it causes a tear.

And depending on the severity of the tear, it will cause a considerable amount of pain and inflammation. Many say that it can feel like a broken bone because the joint is so unstable and painful.  

What are the best treatment options?

Due to their similarity, these treatment techniques are recommended for all 3 injuries.

Resting the injury. Avoid putting weight on it when possible. Avoid any strenuous activities that may cause discomfort or worsen the injury. Give your body time to heal.

Prescription or over-the-counter pain medicines. These help reduce swelling and pain.
Cold packs. These help reduce both pain and swelling.

Wrapping the injury with an elastic bandage or brace. This helps to provide compression and reduce swelling, while also providing support

Stretching and other exercises. These improve flexibility and strength.

Heat packs. These may be recommended before doing stretching and other exercises, as well as a way to relieve muscle pain and stiffness.

Expert help. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to get expert care provided by the area’s top sports medicine specialists. So whether you’re suffering from shin splints or a sprained ankle, Gwinnett Medical Center’s experienced team will provide customized care to heal your injury as quickly and effectively as possible. 


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