All About Sprains and Strains

You were playing a game of pick-up basketball, and now your ankle is swollen and it hurts. How do you know if it’s serious and what you can do to feel better? Believe it or not, this is one of the most common complaints doctors see in their offices. Chances are, you have either a sprain or a strain. But what’s the difference? Both are painful, but they are caused by different injuries. Sprains are injuries to ligaments; strains are injuries to muscles and tendons.


The most common places for sprains to occur are the ankle, knee, and wrist. As you can see, these are all joints. During activity, you may twist your joint too much in the wrong direction. For instance, if you jump up during a game and come down on the side of your foot, you have put a lot of abnormal pressure on your ankle joint. The likely result of this will be that you have damaged a ligament in the joint. Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that hold your bones together, and stabilize the joint. But all sprains are not the same.

There are different degrees of sprain depending on the severity of injury. Milder injuries are the result of stretching and tiny tears in the ligament. More serious injuries include those with partial and complete tears of ligaments. If you have a sprain, you may experience anything from mild pain and swelling, to severe pain, swelling, and bruising. In the case of a leg injury, you may not to be able to walk if the injury is bad enough. The degree of injury will determine your treatment and time of recovery.


Unlike sprains, strains are injuries to muscles and tendons, which are strong, elastic cords that attach muscles to bone. These injuries generally occur from overworking or over stretching; the most common strains occur in the back, neck, and the back of the leg, or hamstring. Just like sprains, you may experience pain, swelling and bruising, as well as muscle spasms or muscle weakness. Sometimes you may not be able to move the muscle at all.

Treatment and Recovery

When you see your doctor, they will usually be able to tell you if you have a sprain or strain based on what you tell them and their physical examination. In some instances, you may need imaging such as an X-ray or MRI. Once diagnosed, the initial treatment for both injuries is the same. Your doctor will recommend RICE: R is for rest, I for ice, C for compression, and E for elevation. Generally, you should rest and refrain from activity until the pain has gone down. This may mean using assistive devices like crutches or a sling. You should also apply ice (an ice bag or a bag of frozen vegetables will do) for 15 minutes, every 1 to 2 hours, for up to 2 days. But, make sure to place a barrier, like a towel, between your skin and the ice pack to prevent injury and discomfort. Compression can be applied by using a compression sleeve or an ace wrap. You should also keep the injury elevated above your heart as much as possible to minimize swelling.

In addition to the RICE method, taking over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen may help with pain and swelling. However, it is always important to discuss any new medications with your doctor, especially if you have any chronic illnesses or take any other routine medications. In most cases, RICE and over-the-counter medications will be enough for your full recovery, however surgery may be necessary for some severe injuries.

After you are feeling a little better, it is recommended that you do some stretching and strengthening exercises to improve your function and to prevent future injuries. It is important to complete your exercise program, and to continue stretching and strengthening your muscles throughout your life, to protect your joints and muscles. Severe or repeated sprains will increase your risk for even more sprains in the future. Strengthening the muscles around the area will help to stabilize the joint, and in some instances, braces may also be recommended. In the case of muscle strains, it is always possible to re-injure the same area. However, the best way to prevent this is by warming up before exercising, stretching, and understanding your limits.

If you have any questions about orthopedic injuries, or if you have experienced an injury and would like to be evaluated by one of our highly skilled and board-certified physicians, call our North Canton office at (844) 469-2663. To schedule an appointment, you can call us or use our secure online appointment request form.