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Sprains, Strains & Fractures–Understanding the Difference

August 19, 2020

It’s happened to the best of us – you take a tumble, step off the curb wrong or get injured playing a sport. Now you are sore and wondering how serious your injury might be. Sometimes you can shake it off and move on. Other times, the swelling doesn’t come down, mobility decreases and that’s when you wonder if it’s time to see a doctor. So how do you tell the difference between a fracture, sprain or strain? Read on to find out. 


A strain is a twisting, stretching or pulling of a muscle or its attachment. It can be acute, caused by over stretching or pulling of the muscle/tendon or chronic, the result of overuse through prolonged, repetitive movement. Pain, swelling and muscle spasms are all usual symptoms of a strain. 

A strain affects the muscles, tendons and ligaments but has less to do with joint function. Common strains are in the lower back and hamstrings, especially in athletes. Strains can also occur in the wrist, ankle and other parts of the body where major muscles and tendons are present. A strain can cause extreme pain, no matter where it is. 

Treatment of a minor strain can usually be done at home and is aimed at offering comfort. Massage, heat, stretching, rest, ice, compression and elevation, as well as protection of the injury, are all recommended at-home treatments. For more severe strains that require medical attention, treatments can include medications, physical therapy, or, in some cases, surgery. 


Similar to a strain, a sprain is basically a ligament or tendon that has been stretched out, or even torn. Sprains are very common and can occur wherever there is a connection between two bones. A mild sprain stretches the ligament but leaves the joint stable. A moderate sprain is a partially torn ligament that can, in some instances, destabilize a joint. In a severe sprain, ligaments could tear almost completely, which may require surgery to repair. 

Like a strain, sprains result in discomfort, swelling, and limited mobility in the affected area but a sprain will usually bring bruising with it. Sometimes, a sprain can be even more painful than a break and is easy to confuse as a fracture. The most common location for a sprain is your ankle, but sprains are also commonly seen in the knee and wrist. Sprains can occur from a variety of activities, especially those that involve lots of pivots and direction changes, such as skiing and football. 

Rest and protection of the joint are the initial recommendations for a sprain. If the issue persists, medical attention is recommended.  Treatment depends on which ligament is injured and could include bracing to protect the injured area and allow it to heal. Once swelling is reduced, range of motion, strength and flexibility will be reintroduced through various exercises dictated by a physician. 

For mild sprains and strains that don’t require medical attention, use the RICE method

Rest: rest the affected area by moving it as little as possible.

Ice: apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the injury in 15-minute intervals, 3-4 times daily to help reduce inflammation.

Compression: wrap the affected area tightly, but not so tight that blood flow is restricted. 

Elevation: raise the injured area above the level of your heart, which will increase blood flow and promote faster healing. 


Unlike strains and sprains, a fracture is when a bone is cracked or broken. Symptoms of a fracture include sudden, severe and immediate pain, swelling, and bruising, and the inability to bear weight or move the injured part of your body. The symptoms of a fractured bone may not always be obvious. 

Although severe breaks may be clear, fractures can be hard to determine, and it is best to seek medical attention immediately. A diagnosis is typically made after a physical exam and imaging, such as an x-ray, MRI, or ultrasound. The majority of fractures are treated with rest and immobilization and, in some cases, surgery. 

If there is any question about the severity of a sprain, strain or fracture, make an appointment with your primary care doctor or an orthopedist immediately. Speaking to a physician and getting the appropriate diagnosis and treatment is important to healing properly. NEED A PROVIDER? FIND ONE HERE.