Did You Sprain It or Strain it?

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g21 (13)Have you ever sprained your ankle? If you have then you will know how painful it is. Did you definitely sprain your ankle? Was it actually a strain (or even, in some cases, a break)? The pain can be excruciating for any of these injuries so it may be difficult for you to tell the difference. Firstly, what exactly happens when you have a sprain or a strain?

What is a sprain?

Sprains are where the ligaments, which connect bone to bone in a joint, tear or overstretch. Ligaments are designed to support your joints and so any injury to ligaments may lead to less stability in that joint. A sprain is usually caused by an injury which stresses a joint, leading to the supporting ligaments being overstretched or even ruptured completely. This can happen from a twist, or even a direct blow or force.


Sprains can be of a different severity. If you have a mild sprain, the ligament has stretched, but the joint is not affected and is stable. If the sprain is moderate, the ligament is partially torn, which will give some instability in the joint. With a severe sprain, ligaments tear completely or separate from the bone. Not surprisingly, this  interferes with how the joint functions. There will be swelling, bruising and inflammation with all sprains, although the intensity will differ.

Commonly Sprained

The ankle is the most commonly sprained joint. Unfortunately, a sprained ankle is much more common once there has been a previous sprain there. If not rehabilitated properly, repeated sprains can lead to ankle arthritis or permanent instability.


Now strains. These are different as they happen in muscles or tendons, not ligaments. Sprains are where the muscle, or tendon, is either pulled or torn – or both. The tendon is the part of the muscle that attaches it to the bone, allowing your muscles to move your skeleton.


A strain can be acute; when a tendon or muscle is pulled, or chronic; which is likely to be from constant use or overuse (it really is important to have adequate rest days in your training schedule so that your muscles do not become strained). If you have strained a muscle or tendon, it is likely that it will be painful and your muscles could spasm, cramp or swell. Mild strains are where the muscle or tendon is stretched and a moderate strain is where the muscle is slightly torn or overstretched. Severe strains are where the muscle or tendon is partially or completely ruptured, which is very painful and leads to a loss of function.

Commonly Strained

Strains can occur in any muscle but it is commonly found in the back muscles due to twisting or carrying weight improperly. Hamstring strains are common in sprinters or other sports involving sprinting such as football or rugby. It is common in footballers as kicking a football also adds to the risk of injury, especially if the hamstrings are tight. Again, it is common to see recurring hamstring strains.

Sporting Culprits

When playing sports, the likely part of the body at risk from a strain or strain depends on the nature of the activity and whether there is any equipment used.

  • Jumping sports such as netball, volleyball or basket ball put athletes at risk of foot and ankle strains and sprains.
  • Contact sports such as hockey, boxing or rugby put players at risk of strains or sprains due to blows to the body.
  • Sports that require fast movement from standing still such as long jump or sprinting also make the athlete vulnerable to strains.
  • Finally, any sport that requires equipment to be gripped, such as golf, gymnastics, tennis, or even the opponent’s clothing as in judo, will make the hands and wrists vulnerable to strains and sprains.
  • Sports where throwing is involved or racquets used will commonly cause elbow strains and sprains.

For our next blog on what treatment is needed for a sprain or strain please click here.

If you have any questions, please contact G4 Physiotherapy and Fitness Didsbury, Manchester by emailing admin@g4physio.co.uk or call 0161 4455133.

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