Strains VS Sprains: What’s the Difference?

Strains and sprains sound almost interchangeable. While they may feel and sound somewhat similar, they are actually two different injuries, sometimes even requiring slightly different rehab approaches. And if you’ve gotten them confused before, rest assured you aren’t the only one!

In this article, we’re going to help you nail down the difference between a strain and sprain, potentially helping you identify which one you might have. Let’s take a look.

What is a Strain?

A strain refers to a stretched or torn muscle. This frequently happens due to sudden twisting or pulling of the muscle, which extends it past its usual limits. 

In some cases, strains can develop overtime due to overuse or repetitive use. Strain symptoms often include:

  • Muscle spasm
  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Limited range of motion
  • Difficulty moving the affected joint

If a strain is severe, you may also experience muscle weakness or an inability to use the muscle (such as when the muscle is completely torn). 

What is a Sprain?

A sprain is when a ligament, the tissue that connects bone to bone, is stretched or torn. This is common when walking and you roll an ankle, or when running during sport and you pivot, tearing or pulling a ligament in the knee.

Common sprain signs and symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Bruising
  • Swelling
  • Hearing a “pop” at the time of injury
  • Limited mobility

A key difference to note between a sprain and strain is that a sprain may frequently cause bruising, depending on the severity of your injury. 

Treatment Options for Strains & Sprains

When diagnosing a strain or sprain, your doctor or physiotherapist will likely conduct a series of tests, as well as inquire into how the injury happened. In some situations, an X-ray or other imaging may be ordered, which can help differentiate between these two injuries.

Initial treatment of a strain and sprain involve very similar protocols, including RICE. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevate. Following this standard first aid process can help reduce swelling and limit any mobility issues. 

When Should You Seek Out Help?

For more severe injuries, you may require surgery to repair the torn or damaged ligament or muscle. Additionally, if you experience the following, you may benefit from visiting your doctor or local physiotherapist:

  • Severe pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Inability to move the injured joint or limb

Typically, when you experience a mild sprain or strain, you should be able to return to your regular activities within a week. For moderate sprains or strains, it may take a couple of weeks to make a full recovery and return to your regular activities or sports. Again, more severe injuries may require surgery or additional care.

Prevention Should Always Be a Priority

While injuries aren’t always avoidable, there are a few things you can do to limit your risk of a sprain or strain including:

  • Warming up and cooling down before and after your workout.
  • Drinking plenty of water when working out.
  • Avoiding uneven terrain or paying close attention to your footing on uneven terrain.
  • Wearing proper footwear for support.
  • Taking breaks as needed.

Have you recently experienced a strain or sprain? The Corydon Physiotherapy team in Winnipeg is here to help you get back on your feet. Together, we’ll find the best way for your body to heal, so that you can get back to all of your favourite sports and activities.

Book your appointment today by calling us at (204) 925-0380, emailing us at, or by using our self-serve online booking system.

Lisa Gibson, MPT
Lisa Gibson, MPT

Lisa graduated from University of Alberta with a Masters in Physical Therapy in October 2013. She’s excited to move to Winnipeg after practicing in Edmonton since 2013. Since graduation, she has enjoyed working in both private clinics and hospitals and has taken additional training in women's health, muscle and joint problems, acupuncture. Lisa has also worked helping patients with a variety of heart conditions.

Lisa uses an evidence-based approach and utilizes movement analysis to guide treatment options. She encourages each patient to actively participate in rehabilitation by setting goals and creating a realistic rehabilitation program, including a home exercise program. Lisa also believes in utilizing manual therapy, joint mobilizations and injury/movement education to assist in the healing process.

In her spare time, Lisa enjoys spending time with her family, practicing yoga, enjoying the outdoors and playing/watching sports.

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