Q | What’s the difference between a strain and a sprain? And how do I know if I need to see a doctor?
A | The terms “strain” and “sprain” are commonly used to describe an injury experienced after an abrupt movement — often accompanying statements like “I rolled my ankle” or “I pulled my hamstring.” But the two terms describe distinct medical conditions.
A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon, the tissue that attaches muscle to bone.
A sprain is damage to a ligament, a band of connective tissue that links one bone to another; it often occurs when a joint moves beyond its normal range of motion.
In both cases, severity can vary from mild (the tissue in question gets stretched too far) to serious (a complete tear).
Luckily, you don’t have to be able to self-diagnose to start feeling better, says Kathleen Weber, MD, a sports-medicine specialist at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center and team physician for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox.
First, she says, follow the RICE protocol to reduce inflammation: rest, ice, compress, elevate. Most minor injuries improve in 10 to 14 days.
“If you feel like there is a significant amount of swelling or pain, if you are unable to walk or put weight on the injured body part, or if your symptoms are persistent, it’s a good idea to get evaluated by a physician,” Weber says.
A sports-medicine doctor will determine whether a strain or sprain is the culprit and may prescribe exercises to relieve pain and restore mobility. In severe cases (usually tears), surgery may be required.