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What’s the Difference Between a Sprain and a Strain?

Many people use the terms sprain and strain interchangeably to describe everything from a twisted ankle to pulled hamstring, but they’re really quite different.

Sprains typically happen when a person falls, twists or moves in a way that forces the body out of its normal position. By contrast, strains can happen when you do the same motions over and over, work out at the gym or anywhere you do a lot of heavy lifting.

Sprain vs. strain

A sprain is a stretch or tear in a ligament. Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones at the joint. Ligaments appear as crisscross bands that attach to bones and help stabilize joints. Most mild to moderate sprains take 3-8 weeks to fully heal. More severe sprains can take a few months to regain full mobility.

A strain is also a stretch or tear, but it occurs in a muscle or tendon instead. Tendons are fibrous connective tissue that binds the muscle to the bone. They play an important role in movement by transferring the contraction force produced by the muscles to the bone. They also help strengthen and stabilize the joints.

How long does it take sprains and strains to heal?

The length of time it takes for sprains vs. strains to heal depends on the severity of the injury.


There are three types of sprains:

  • First degree (mild)
    A first-degree sprain is a mild ligament tear. Common symptoms include mild swelling and pain. The approximate recovery time is 3-5 weeks.
  • Second degree (moderate)
    A second-degree sprain is a little more severe ligament tear, usually involving 50 percent of the ligament. Common symptoms include moderate swelling, pain and immobility. The approximate recovery time is 4-6 weeks.
  • Third degree (severe)
    A third-degree sprain is a complete ligament tear. Common symptoms include severe swelling, pain and significant joint instability. The approximate recovery time is 8-12 months.


There are three types of strains:

  • First degree (mild)
    A first-degree strain is a mild overstretching of a muscle. Common symptoms include stiffness, but can still bear weight and full mobility is still possible. The approximate recovery time is 2-3 weeks.
  • Second degree (moderate)
    A second-degree strain involves a greater number of injured tendons. Common symptoms include pain, mild swelling, spasms, a noticeable loss of strength and bruising. The approximate recovery time is 3-6 weeks and involves immobilization in a brace or splint.
  • Third degree (severe)
    A third-degree strain is severe tearing or rupture of the muscle or tendon. Common symptoms include swelling, severe pain. This degree of injury may require surgery to reattach the damaged muscle or tendon. The approximate postsurgical recovery time may take up to 12 weeks and often involves a splint, case and physical therapy to regain full mobility.

When to see a doctor for a sprain or a strain

Most mild to moderate sprains and strains can be safely treated at home through a combination of rest, ice, compression and elevation. Please visit the nearest urgent care center if you are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Severe swelling, bruising, discoloration or pain
  • Numbness at or near the affected joint
  • Immobility of the affected joint
  • An inability to put weight on the affected joint

If you have a moderate to severe sprain or a strain and need urgent medical treatment, please visit Coastal Urgent Care of Baton Rouge. We welcome walk-in appointments from 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.