What Are Sprains and Strains?

Sprains and strains are two injuries that are often confused for each other, likely because the injuries often have similar symptoms. There are, however, distinct differences between the two.

A sprain is the stretching or tearing of ligaments, the tough bands of tissue connecting two bones. The ankle is the most common location in the lower extremity for a sprain to occur. Reports estimate that more than 20,000 ankle sprains occur every day in the United States. When the foot falls inward or twists outward, a sprain can occur.

On the other hand, a strain is the overstretching or tearing of muscles or tendons. Tendons are thick fibrous cords of tissue connecting bones to muscles. Strains can happen suddenly, or they can develop over time. Muscle strains are common in the lower extremity and can happen in any muscle that crosses the foot or ankle.

woman massaging her foot sprain


Sprains or strains are not uncommon because of how hard our bodies work every day. Certain situation increase the likelihood of sprains which include:

  • Athletic activities or exercise, like running or jumping
  • Accidents like falling or slipping
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Overexertion
  • Sitting or standing for long periods of time or in an awkward position
  • Prolonged repeated motions

Chronic strains are the result of overusing muscles and tendons. We commonly see these in athletes in Palos Heights and Worth who constantly train and do not receive adequate rest.


The symptoms of a sprain or strain vary depending on the severity of the injury. Pain, swelling, bruising, and range of motion of a joint are the most common symptoms. At the time of the injury, you might have heard or felt a “pop” in the affected area. One difference between the two injuries is that you might experience muscle spasms and cramps near the affected joint with a strain. In addition, bruising might occur with a strain, although it might not be visible for several days.

wrapping sprain


A sprain or strain is often diagnosed based on symptoms and physical exam. Imaging such as an X-ray or ultrasound may follow a physical exam to rule out a break or fracture. Sometimes, an MRI might be used to give a detailed view of the soft tissue surrounding the joint. This type of imaging could also reveal a thin break that an X-ray is unable to visualize. 

Home Treatment

Using the R.I.C.E method, you can effectively treat a mild sprain or strain at home.


Stay off the affected joint, trying not to use it as much as possible to give it time to heal.


Use ice to reduce swelling and inflammation in the joint. Apply ice for 20 minutes several times a day. Icing is critical in the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury occurs.


Compression reduces the swelling in the joint. Wrap the joint in a bandage or with trainer’s tape. Be careful not to wrap it too tightly because that reduces the blood supply to the joint.


Keep the joint elevated above the level of your heart to reduce swelling. When an injury occurs in your knee or ankle, this might mean you have to stay in bed or on the couch. If it is too difficult to keep it as high as your heart, keeping it parallel to the ground works well.

In combination with the R.I.C.E. method, you can use over-the-counter NSAIDs, acetaminophen, or aspirin medications to manage the pain and further reduce inflammation.

Some of these injuries might require physical therapy to help the damaged tissue heal. PT will also help retain and strengthen the affected muscles and tendons.

Medical Treatment

If you experience some or any of these symptoms in Worth, you should reach out to Keir Foot & Ankle.

  • Difficulty walking or standing without pain
  • Inability to move or flex the affected joint
  • Numbness or tingling around the joint
  • Swelling or bruising in the affected area

A more severe strain or sprain might require other treatment methods like joint splinting or joint immobilization. Finally, severe strains and sprains might need surgery to repair damaged or torn ligaments, tendons, or muscles. 

Patients in Worth trust Keir Foot & Ankle when they experience strains or sprains. We know how disappointing it is when you are sidelined from your favorite activities because of an injury. Our treatment will get you back to full health while also ensuring you do not rush back to activities that could injure you again.

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