Muscle Sprains and Strains

Sprained Ankle Summary
An injury to a ligament is called a sprain, and an injury to muscle or tendon is called a strain. Sprains and strains may be caused by repetitive movements or a single stressful incident. Symptoms include pain and swelling. Though treatment depends upon the extent and location of the injury, rest, ice, compression, and elevation are key elements of treatment.
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Muscle sprains and strains facts

  • A sprain is abnormal stretching or tearing of a ligament that supports a joint.
  • A strain is abnormal stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon.
  • Sprains and strains may be caused by repetitive activities or by a single event.
  • The diagnosis of a sprain or strain usually can be made after the healthcare professional takes a history of the injury and performs a physical examination. Depending upon the situation, X-rays, CAT scan, or MRI scan may be needed to help make or confirm the diagnosis.
  • RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) are the keys to treatment.
  • Most sprains and strains resolve with time, but occasionally other treatment, including physical therapy and surgery, may be required.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications may be helpful in decreasing the pain and inflammation of the injury.

What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

A sprain is an injury to ligaments, while a strain is an injury to muscle or tendon tissue.

How muscles work

The purpose of muscles is to allow the body to move. A muscle attaches to bone, either directly or by way of a tendon, on each side of a joint. When the muscle contracts, the joint moves through its range of motion. The muscle that you feel underneath your skin is really made up of many smaller bundles of muscle fibers called fascicles. These, in turn, are made up of individual muscle fibers that are crosslinked to allow them to slide back and forth within the fascicle. Sliding together causes the muscle fibers to shorten and the muscle to contract and move the joint. The fibers return to their resting position when the fibers elongate and allow the joint to relax.

The transition of muscle to tendon happens gradually as muscle fibers give way to tendon fibers before the bony attachment occurs. The anatomy of each tendon is different and depending upon their location in the body, the tendon portion may be very short or very long. A strain is damage caused by an overstretched muscle or tendon, causing their fibers to be pulled apart and lose the ability to contract. The severity of injury depends upon the amount of tissue that is damaged. The muscle fiber may be just stretched, partially torn, or completely torn apart. The most common cause of the injury is overuse, which weakens the muscle. Muscles and joints are forced to perform movements for which they are not prepared or designed. An injury can occur from a single stressful incident, or it may gradually arise after many repetitions of a motion. The damage can occur in three areas: the muscle itself, the muscle tendon intersection where the muscle fibers transition to tendon fibers, or the tendon itself. Strains are described by the severity of damage in three grades:

  • Grade 1 strains usually cause stretching of a few of the muscle fibers.
  • Grade 2 injury is more significant damage and some muscle fibers are damaged and torn.
  • Grade 3 injury is a complete rupture of the muscle.

How joints work

Joints are stabilized by thick bands of tissue called ligaments that allow the joint to move only in specific directions. Some joints move in multiple planes. Therefore, they need more than one group of ligaments to hold the joint in proper alignment. The ligaments are anchored to bone on each side of the joint. If a ligament is stretched or torn, the injury is called a sprain.

The grading system for sprain injury is similar to that of strains.

  • Grade 1 sprains describe fibers of the ligament that are stretched.
  • Grade 2 sprains are injuries where part of the ligament is torn.
  • Grade 3 sprains are when the ligament is completely torn or ruptured.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/24/2012

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Learn about treatment of sprains and strains.

Treatment for Exercise & Sports Injuries

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad St?ppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

Sports injuries refer to the kinds of injury that occur during sports or exercise. While it is possible to injure any part of the body when playing sports, the term sports injuries is commonly used to refer to injuries of the musculoskeletal system.

Some of the most common sports injuries include:

  • Sprains—tears to the ligaments that join the ends of bones together. The ankles, knees, and wrists are commonly affected by sprains.
  • Strains—pulls or tears of muscles or tendons (the tissues that attach the muscles to the bones)
  • "Shin splints"—pain along the outside front of the lower leg, commonly seen in runners
  • Achilles tendonitisor rupture of the Achilles tendon—These injuries involve the large band of tissue that connects the calf muscles to the heel
  • Fractures of the bones
  • Dislocation of joints

Acuteinjuries usually occur suddenly while participating in sports or exercise. They may result in sudden and severe pain, the inability to bear weight on a limb, or inability to move the affected part of the body. Chronicinjuries usually result from overuse of one area of the body over a period of time. Symptoms of chronic injuries include soreness, dull aching pain, and pain during participation in physical activity.


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