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A Guide to Sprains and Strains: Differences, Symptoms and Treatment


Reviewed by: Amy Hinshaw

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to experience a sprain or strain. Simply walking on uneven pavement and twisting your ankle can leave you with a sprain. Because sprain and strain injuries are so common, it’s important to be able to spot them so you can properly treat them. Review our guide to sprains and strains to learn what these injuries are, the symptoms you can expect and common treatment plans.

What Is the Difference? Sprains vs. Strains

Sprains and strains are fairly common injuries. Both are caused by twisting or stretching the body in awkward or unnatural positions, especially during exercise or while playing sports. Failing to stretch your body or moving heavy objects can increase your chances of spraining or straining your body.

Sprains and strains affect different parts of the body. So, what is a sprain? When your ligaments — the bands of tissues connected to your bones — get stretched in the wrong direction or too far, you suffer from a sprain. 

A strain also results from overusing, overstretching or moving body parts in the wrong direction. However, strains affect tendons and muscles instead of ligaments. Tendons are the fibrous tissues responsible for connecting your muscles to your bones.

Where Can You Get Sprains and Strains?

Sprains and strains affect different parts of the body. Because they involve the overstretching or tearing of ligaments, it’s more common to see sprains in areas of the body that are vulnerable during a fall, like wrists and knees. 

Common types of sprains include:

  • Wrist sprain: Wrist sprains typically occur by falling onto an outstretched hand.
  • Knee sprain: Knee sprains can also occur due to a fall or other blow to the knee. A knee sprain can also result from twisting or pivoting the knee too far or in the wrong direction.
  • Ankle sprain: Ankle sprains are most commonly caused by landing awkwardly or incorrectly on the ankle while running or jumping or during other physical activity. While running or moving around, you may also twist your ankle in an awkward position, which could cause an ankle sprain.

Strains can affect any muscles or tendons in the body, but you’re most likely to see strains occur in the following areas:

  • Back.
  • Quadriceps.
  • Hamstrings.

People who use or work the same muscles on a daily or regular basis, like athletes, are more likely to experience a strain.

What Are Common Symptoms of Sprains and Strains?

While sprains and strains are different injuries, they share many symptoms. The severity and number of symptoms may vary depending on how serious the injury is. However, if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, there’s a good chance you are suffering from a sprain or strain. To confirm your diagnosis visit your local urgent care.

General symptoms of sprains and strains include:

  • Bruising.
  • Inability to put weight on the area or use it properly.
  • Instability.
  • Limited flexibility.
  • Muscle spasms or cramping.
  • Numbness.
  • Pain, tenderness or weakness.
  • Swelling. 

How Serious Are Sprains and Strains?


Sprains and strains can be different in terms of severity. While symptoms of a mild ankle sprain may resemble symptoms of a severe ankle sprain, the injuries themselves can be quite different. The varying degrees of sprains include:

  • Mild: Mild sprains are the most tolerable type of sprains. With mild sprains, there is typically only slight overstretching of the ligaments.
  • Moderate: Moderate sprains range from stretching to minor tearing of the ligaments.
  • Severe: Severe sprains occur when a ligament experiences a full and complete tear. In some cases, severe sprains may require surgery.

Similar to sprains, the degrees of strains are also ranked on a scale of mild to severe. Review the different types of strains below:

  • Mild: A mild strain occurs when muscle fibers are only slightly damaged.
  • Moderate: Moderate strains affect more muscle fibers than mild strains, making them more painful. 
  • Severe: Muscles or tendons are completely ruptured in severe muscle strains. Similar to a severe sprain, surgery may be required for these injuries. 

How Do You Treat Sprain and Strain Injuries?

Severe sprains and strains may require surgery or other special treatment. However, for the more common mild to moderate sprains and strains, it’s recommended you follow a treatment method called PRICE

  • Protection: You’re likely familiar with the “RICE” method. The “P” in PRICE is an added step to improve your healing process. Protection means not using the injured area by keeping all weight off of it. Completely immobilize the injured area by using a brace, splint or crutches.
  • Rest: Help your body heal by avoiding strenuous activities or exercise. If you don’t properly rest, you can end up extending your recovery time.
  • Ice: Around four to eight times a day you’ll need to ice the injured area. To avoid frostbite or cold injury, only apply ice for a maximum of 20 minutes at a time. However, 20 minutes of icing is not a requirement. If at any point you begin to feel numb or uncomfortable, remove the ice.
  • Compression: Reduce swelling by applying pressure using a compression bandage or another compression method. Your compression wrap should be snug, but it should never be uncomfortable or cut off circulation. 
  • Elevate: You’ll also need to reduce the swelling through elevation. Use a pillow to keep your injured body part elevated. If possible, aim to elevate your injured area above the heart.

How Long Will a Sprained Ankle Take to Heal?

The recovery time for a sprained ankle depends on your injury’s severity. Recovery time can also vary depending on how well you follow your treatment plan. 

For mild to moderate sprained ankles, you can expect your recovery time to be as short as two weeks. However, even once you start to feel better, you’ll need to avoid strenuous activities for up to eight weeks to ensure you fully and properly heal your sprained ankle.

Severe sprains have a longer recovery time. The healing process for severely sprained ankles can last anywhere from 12 weeks to several months. For severe sprains treated by surgery, you can expect your healing process to be on the longer end. Your surgeon will be able to provide you with a more in-depth recovery timeline.

Find Treatment for Sprains and Strains at Coastal Urgent Care

Whether you’re starting a new fitness routine or you’re an experienced athlete, it’s extremely important to properly stretch before jumping into any physical activity. Warming up your body and stretching are great ways to prevent sprains or strains.

If you think you’ve suffered a sprain or strain, find a Coastal Urgent Care near you to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Get in line, online today so our providers can help set you on the road to recovery.

03 Find Treatment For Sprains And Strains At Coastal Urgent Care