What's the Difference Between a Strain and Sprain?

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Whether you’re shoveling snow, walking to work, or playing a game of pick-up basketball, it’s bound to happen sooner or later: pain. Maybe you say you “strained a muscle,” “sprained your ankle,” or even “tore” something. But what’s really going on here?

“Sprain and strain are medical terms, but both of them can mean tear,” says David Neuman, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at NY SportsCare.

In short, strains involve tearing or over-stretching a muscle or tendon, while sprains are the tearing of a ligament (more details on that soon). Strains and sprains come in three different severities: grade I, grade II, and grade III. The higher the grade, the more painful and severe the injury.

A grade I strain or sprain can be a very slight tear or over-stretching a muscle and may have little inflammation, Neuman says. Grade II is slightly more severe, and grade III is a complete rupture of the tendon or the ligament.

With a grade III, you’re going to experience a high level of pain, says Colleen Brough, a physical therapist and assistant professor at Columbia University in New York City. “It doesn’t get better, and a person really can’t tolerate weight bearing or walking on it.” Chances are, if you have a grade III injury, you’ll know it.

But what about all those other times when you’ve just got a little pain and you’re not exactly sure what to do next? We’ve rounded up answers to your most common sprain and strain issues.


What do you think?