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Hampton Roads Urgent Care Clinics

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Sprains vs. Strains

Two of the most common reasons for a visit to the urgent care are sprains and strains. 

Sprains and strains are often categorized together due to their similarity — they both refer to tearing or overstretching of soft tissue in the body. However, the difference lies in what soft tissue is affected.

Soft Tissue in the Body

Ligaments, tendons, and muscles, oh my. Soft tissue includes those three as well as fat, fibers, blood vessels, nerves, and membranes. It is essentially the material that connects or supports our organs and bones, and gives shape to the body.

Ligaments connect two or more bones at a joint, like your knee, ankle, or elbow. 

Tendons are located at each end of a muscle, and attach that muscle to bone.

Sprains are injuries of ligaments, while strains are injuries of muscles or tendons. 

Sprain or strain?

Let’s look at two examples of soft tissue injury. Can you tell whether it is a strain or a sprain?

1. Jane Smith agreed to help her best friend move. As they were carrying the couch to the moving truck, a stray cat dashed in between Jane’s feet. Jane jerked quickly to avoid stepping on the cat, and instantly felt a painful spasm in her lower back, almost causing her to drop the couch. For the rest of the day, Jane took it easy, since it was painful to bend over or stand up straight. Sprain or strain? 

If you said strain, you are correct! The pain is in Jane’s back muscles, which categorizes the injury as a strain. Strained muscles are commonly seen in those with active lifestyles, like athletes. But strains are also common for anybody who overextends themselves (like helping a friend move heavy furniture one weekend!) — causing injuries such as back or shoulder strains.

2. John Jones was sending a text message as he rushed out his front door. Distracted while hurrying down his porch steps, he missed the bottom stair. His foot hit the ground off balance and twisted at the ankle, causing John to fall to the ground in pain. He got up and tried to walk but it was very painful and he could already see his ankle starting to swell. Sprain or strain?

If you said sprain, you are most likely correct. Both sprains and strains can occur suddenly due to trauma (falling, twisting, impact, overexertion). Since this injury is affecting a joint, there is a greater chance that it is a sprain. However, this is a trick question! There is a potential third option — fracture. John could have broken his ankle bone. It might be hard to tell on your own whether an injury is a fracture or a sprain. If John is in great pain, a quick trip to the urgent care will confirm the diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and rehabilitation for him.

Comparing Sprains and Strains

This table outlines the differences between sprains and strains. 

InjurySoft tissue affectedSymptomsGenerally occurs inOnsetCause
SprainLigamentsPain, swelling, bruisingAnkles, knees, wrist, thumbAcuteSudden trauma (falls,twists) 
StrainMuscles and tendonsPain, swelling muscle spasms, crampingLower back, leg, footAcute or gradualSudden trauma (falls, twists) or repetitive overuse

Keep in mind that this is general information, and not necessarily intended for self-diagnosis. For example, pain in the ankle could be an injured tendon or muscle. Though home treatment for both is the same initially (rest, ice, compression, elevation), you may want to rule out anything more serious with a diagnosis from a doctor. Additionally, if you have a strain from overuse, you should work with a medical professional to develop a plan for rehabilitation and to prevent reinjury.

Should I see a doctor for sprains and strains?

If your pain is severe or worsens, your injury does not improve with home treatment, you have numbness or tingling at the injury site, or you experience other symptoms (like fever or chills), you should see a doctor.  

Whether you have a sprain or a strain (or a fracture!), your local urgent care can help. In and Out Express Care treats soft tissue injuries every day. We also work with elite athletes providing top care for injuries, while promoting active recovery. With four urgent care locations in Hampton Roads, we’re here if you need us!

If you’re an athlete and have a questions about training or injuries, click here to email Coach Dana. Your question may be featured here on the In and Out blog!

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09.14.21

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Please note: Due to staff shortages and the COVID pandemic, your wait times may be longer than usual. We apologize for any inconvenience. Rest assured, you will still receive outstanding medical care! Thank you for visiting In and Out Express Care.