When you twist an ankle or wrench your back, you probably don't care whether you call it a strain or a sprain, it just hurts. But there is a difference between the two. The distinction isn't a level of severity, as many might suspect. A strain is not a less severe sprain or vice versa.

The first difference to note between these two injuries, is their textbook definitions. A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon, while a sprain is an injury to a ligament. As they are known to affect different types of structures, they are by definition, completely separate ailments. The problem for most, is that they sound so much alike. Structurally and functionally tendons and ligaments perform very different jobs. Both strains and sprains are classified by degrees of severity, ranging from first to third degree. The differences in degrees essentially reflect the degree of overstretching or damaging force applied to the tendon, muscle or ligament. The definitions of each degree are similar in strains and sprains and are described below.

  1. First degree: This is a stretching of the tissue (a sprain in ligaments, or strain in tendons) without tearing of the fibers. It is characterized by pain and mild dysfunction of the tissue or body part and minimal to no swelling.
  2. Second degree: This is the stretching and partial tearing of fibers. It is characterized by pain, swelling, bruising and moderate to severe dysfunction of the tissue or body part.
  3. Third degree: This is the complete tear or rupture of the structure. It is characterized by severe pain, severe bruising and loss of function of the body part.

There is a wide variety of severity in both strain and sprains with similarities and differences in both. However, the most important thing to remember is to take care of all injuries appropriately from the onset up until return to your back in the swing of things.

Learn about each of the three degrees of strains and sprains on the following pages.