Although they often feel the same, strains and sprains are different conditions because they can affect different structures in the body.
Strains are caused by damage to muscles or tendons. A tendon is a band of connective tissue that joins a muscle to a bone.
Sprains, however, are caused by damage to ligaments. These are the bands of connective tissue that join bones together in a joint.

How are sprains and strains different?

Both strains and sprains are caused by a stretch or tear in the tissue, but with strains the injured tissue is a muscle or tendon, whereas with sprains, the tissue is a ligament.

Acute strains occur immediately after injury to the muscle or tendon. This could be caused by a fall or twist (like landing heavily after a jump) or overstretching, which might occur when lifting a heavy object. Strains can also be chronic, developing over time from overuse of muscles and tendons during prolonged repetitive movement.
People with a strain may experience pain, muscle spasm, muscle weakness, inflammation or cramping. Muscles that commonly get strains are in the back, hamstring, elbow (especially in racquet sports or throwing activities), and hand (especially in sports that require gripping like gymnastics, golf or rowing).

Sprains are caused by stretching and sometimes tearing the ligaments. Typical symptoms are pain, bruising, swelling and inflammation. The joints most at risk for a sprain vary depending on the activities. For example, jumping (as in hurdling, netball, volleyball or basketball) or running on an uneven surface can cause foot, knee or ankle sprains, and falling on an outstretched hand can cause a wrist sprain.

How severe is my sprain or strain?

The severity of these types of injuries are graded from first to third degree, depending on how much tissue damage there is.

First degree: The tendons, muscles or ligaments have been overstretched, but may not be torn, or may be only slightly torn. Pain is often mild, and there is generally little or no swelling or bruising. You should be able to put weight on the affected joint in a first-degree strain or sprain, because the joint is still stable.
Second degree: The tissue fibres have been stretched and partially torn. These injuries are usually accompanied by bruising, swelling and moderate pain, and you may have difficulty using the affected joint or muscle.
Third degree: This is a severe strain or sprain, where the tendon or ligament is almost completely torn. Not surprisingly, these injuries usually cause severe pain, swelling and bruising, and you will be unable to use the affected body part. These strains and sprains are serious and often require surgery and rehabilitation.

If you are unsure about the severity of your strain or sprain, or are concerned for any reason, seek advice from your doctor.

Preventing sprains and strains

  • Minimise the risk of slips and falls by wearing the right shoes: make sure they fit well and replace them if the tread is worn out
  • Taping or braces can help prevent injury, especially for those with previous sprains
  • Avoid running on uneven surfaces
  • Don’t exercise or play sport if you’re tired or in pain
  • Use or wear protective equipment for sports

What should I do if I have a strain or sprain?

RICE: RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. It’s the first thing to do if you’ve hurt a muscle or joint. It’s best to stop exercising and limit other activities for a while, and put an ice pack on the affected area for 10 minutes every 1-2 hours, continue for up to 48 hours. Bandage the site or use elastic wrap to apply compression – this helps to reduce swelling. If possible, keep the injured area elevated to above the level of the heart, by placing it on a pillow. This also helps to reduce swelling.

Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Nurofen can help with the pain after a strain or sprain. Pain relievers like Nurofen are anti-inflammatories, so they can reduce inflammation too. As well as tablets, some anti-inflammatories are available as gels or creams that can be applied to the skin around a strain or sprain.

See your doctor: It’s a good idea to get a strain or sprain checked out, especially if you think it may be a second or third-degree injury. Mild strains and sprains may not need medical attention, unless symptoms get worse in the first 24 hours, but if ever in doubt, seek medical advice. 

Preventing sprains and strains

  • 1

    Minimise the risk of slips and falls by wearing the right shoes: make sure they fit well and replace them if the tread is worn out

  • 2

    Taping or braces can help prevent injury, especially for those with previous sprains

  • 3

    Avoid running on uneven surfaces

  • 4

    Don’t exercise or play sport if you’re tired or in pain

  • 5

    Use or wear protective equipment for sports