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With only one letter difference, it can be easy to confuse a strain for a sprain.You may think they are one in the same, but the fact is they’re very different injures that need different treatment. To understand these two injuries, a quick anatomy lesson is in order. Here we go!

Musculoskeletal Anatomy

Muscles attach to bones via the tendon at the end of the muscle.Tendon is a tough connective tissue that has very little elasticity compared to muscle. Muscles and tendons help move bones and allow smooth motion.

Ligaments are similar to tendons since they are both made of collagen but ligaments attach one bone to another bone. Unlike muscles and tendons, ligaments are meant to limit how much bones can move. Ligaments are meant to provide stability and keep the skeleton and bones in normal alignment.

Both ligaments and tendons are more likely to tear than muscles because they have little elasticity. Consider a muscle like a new rubber band (or hairband for the ladies w) – elastic and flexible – able to bounce back after being stretched. Ligaments and tendons are more like an old, dry rubber band – pull it too far and it will just snap apart. Sometimes surgery is required to reconnect muscles and ligaments.

Remember: Ligament and tendon injuries can be avoided by stretching muscles regularly BEFORE an injury occurs.

Lets get to it!

Strains: Muscle and Tendon Injuries

Strains are over-stretching or over-using injuries to muscles and/or tendons from activities like throwing, running or jumping. Intensifying a work out with weight, time or speed too fast is another cause. When muscles sustain more severe injures like a tear, it usually occurs where the muscle and tendon meet (known as the musculotendinous junction). Less severe injuries and strains happen at any point throughout the rest of the soft part of the muscle (muscle belly.)

Common muscles/tendon strains include:

  • Hamstring
  • Biceps
  • Calf muscles  or Achilles’ tendon
  • Wrist extensors (/Tennis Elbow)

Sprains: Ligament Injuries

Sprains are injuries to the ligaments (those guys who are like tendons but attaches to bones instead of the muscle) . When ligaments tear, bones can become misaligned and potentially dislocate. Typically sprains occur from falling, twisting or being hit by something at high velocity.

Common ligament sprains include:

  • MCL, LCL and ACL Knee Injuries
  • Ankle Sprain
  • Elbow Injury (UCL) –requires “Tommy John” surgery

Strain and Sprain Summary

  • Muscles have tendons (m & t go together) So, if it’s an injured muscle or tendon, then it’s a sTrain eh? eh?
  • Ligaments attach to bones (l & b go together) – now envision flipping that “b” upside down , it become a “p” so “l” & “p” go together making it a sPrain. Get it? No? Nevermind, just keep reading.

Physical Therapy for Sprains and Strains

In both cases, strains and sprains respond well to initial rest and the injured muscles or ligaments should not be stretched. Physical therapy helps to evaluate the laxity of each individual’s body and the severity of the injury. Manual techniques to treat dysfunction in ligaments, muscles and tendons can be performed by your therapist as well instruction in exercises that will help improve the injured muscles strength, texture, elasticity, and performance. Balance and proprioception (your body’s ability to know where it is positioned in space) are also impacted by these injuries and can be improved with physical therapy.

Worried about a pain that just won’t go away? Schedule a Free Injury Screening with us today!


Tendon and Ligament Image.
Calf Strain Image.
Knee ligaments Image.
Rubber band image.