Sprain, Strain or Break: What’s the Difference?

Older Man with Injured Leg in SnowWhether you are braving the icy, snowy weather or playing an indoor sport for exercise, winter can be a time when injuries to bones and muscles occur. If — or when — that happens, do you know the difference between a strain, a sprain and a break?

John Gee, a physical therapist for Memorial’s SportsCare, explains:

Strains occur in muscles and/tendons (the tissue that connects muscle to bone) and are most commonly caused by overuse (such as sports that require excessive jumping). However, any activity that causes a muscle to be twisted, pulled, overstretched or torn, such as a fall on the ice, can result in a strain. The most common symptoms of a strain include pain, muscle spasms/weakness, swelling, inflammation and cramping.

Sprains involve a stretching or tearing of a ligament, the tissue that connects bones. Sprains are often caused by an injury that knocks a joint out of balance (such as a fall, or a direct/indirect hit to the body) and either overstretches or ruptures the ligaments. Common symptoms of a sprain are pain (especially at the moment of injury), bruising, swelling and inflammation. The injured person often will feel or hear a pop in the joint.

Treating strains and sprains involve similar steps, Gee said.

“Apply ice to the injured area right away if a sprain or strain is suspected. While it shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin, using ice for 20 minutes at a time several times throughout the day will help decrease swelling and pain,” he said. “After some strains or sprains, early movement will be encouraged once the internal bleeding has been controlled.”

Breaks (or fractures) happen in bones, and there are several types of fractures that vary in severity. Common symptoms include swelling, bruising, deformity, pain (especially with movement or pressure) and loss of function.

In addition to being careful to avoid falls, you can reduce your risk of strains and sprains by:

  • Regular stretching and muscle-strengthening routines;
  • Wearing shoes that fit and are appropriate for your activity;
  • Eating a well-balanced diet for muscle strength;
  • Warming up before exercising and using proper protective gear for sports.

Healing options for strains, sprains and fractures depend on the type and severity of the injury. Rest, elevation, immobilization, rehabilitation and/or surgery may be required. If you suspect a fracture, go to the emergency room or see your physician.

For all but mild cases of strains or sprains, see a physician as soon as possible after the injury to get a diagnosis and treatment plan.

“Pain increasing with movement needs further evaluation from a medical professional,” Gee said.