Strains vs sprains
A common question we get asked in the clinic by sports people and every day folk is “what’s the difference between a strain and a sprain”. Although these types of injuries both relate to connective or soft tissue there are some subtle differences that are important to know as these will lead to different treatment plans and outcomes. Below is a quick summary of the differences and what this all means.
A Sprain is an injury to a ligament, the stiff fibrous connective tissue that connects bone to bone around a joint. Ligaments are tremendously important and allow movement in the desired directions around our joints but limit the movement in dangerous or non-desirable ways, such as holding our knee together to allow us to walk and play sport with a knee that bends in the desired way.
Injuries to these structures can be ranging from a stretch to a complete rupture and classifying these injuries is important to guide management. See below for the grading system your physiotherapist will most likely use for diagnosing your ligament injuries.
A strain is the injury to the contractile tissue that make up a muscle and cause movement at a joint or the Fibrous, elastic tendon that attaches the muscle to a bone. These usually are caused by a fast stretching motion or a load that you are not prepared for, exceeding your muscles’ strength or stretching abilities.
Your Physio will likely grade these injuries using a similar system as Sprains and these injuries can vary from an over-stretching of some of the muscle or tendon to a complete tear.
What does this mean?
Both will initially require treatment and assessment early in the injury management but before getting in to see your Physio it is good practice to use ice and compression to manage pain and swelling around the injured area as well as limiting your movements to low load pain free activity.
Next, physio assessment of the severity of your injury is important as this will guide treatment. For example, a Grade 1 sprain that is really stable may require some support (taping/bracing) to limit further damage to the affected ligament and is possible to return to activity as soon as your pain and function allows. With more severe strains and sprains further investigations and treatment may important as with some severe injuries (Grade 3) surgical interventions may be your best option to return to your activity.
Physiotherapy is really important in rehab regardless of the severity of sprain or strain. Rehab exercises aimed at increasing your muscles’ capacity i.e. strength and length or balance and control around a joint, will help to safely return you to activity without having a reoccurring injury.
Written by James Craig, Physiotherapist for myPhysioSA Payneham. James loves treating sports injuries related to football, soccer, netball and running.