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Sprains, Strains & Breaks: How to Tell the Difference

If you’ve ever fractured a bone, you know it doesn’t necessarily feel the way you expect it to.

While serious breaks are often clear, others may be subtle, with symptoms ranging from tingling and pinching to swelling. That confusion can lead people to delay treatment, which can be painful or dangerous.

Here’s how to tell the difference in a sprain, a strain and a break:

What’s a sprain?

A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament, which are the tough, stretchy bands of tissue that connect two bones. Ligaments stabilize and support joints, and they are meant to move — but only to a point.

What’s a strain?

Strains are a twist, pull or tear of a muscle or tendon. Tendons are the cords of tissue that connect muscles and bones.

The biggest difference between the two are that:

  • A sprain is an injury to ligaments which connect bone to bone, and
  • A strain is an injury to tendons, which connect muscle to bone

What’s a break?

A break is a fracture, chip or complete break in the bone. These are often caused by accidents or trauma.

How do you tell the difference?

Sprain: When you sprain something, you may feel a tear or pop. Although the severity of the pain will vary, all sprains typically cause pain, swelling, bruising and inflammation.

The ankle is the most commonly sprained joint. Once you’ve sprained it, you’re more likely to do it again, which can lead to permanent injury or arthritis. Consult your doctor and consider wearing a brace if ankle injuries are common.

Strain: There are two main kinds of strains:

  1. Acute, which happens when you stretch or pull a muscle or tendon, and
  2. Chronic, which results from overuse of muscles and tendons through prolonged, repetitive movement (ex. training intensely for an athletic event)

Symptoms of strains include:

  • Pain
  • Muscle spasm and weakness
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation
  • Cramping

Common sprains include the back, where the muscles that support the spine are twisted, pulled, or torn (commonly during activities like basketball or volleyball), and the hamstring, which is a muscle in the back of the thigh that can be sprained while kicking, running or jumping.

Symptoms of sprains and strains are very similar. The main difference is that with a sprain you are more likely to have bruising around the affected joint while a strain causes spasms in the affected muscle.

Break: Contrary to popular belief, breaks aren’t always acutely painful. If you experience numbness or tingling, a pinching sensation or the bone is tender to the touch, you probably have a fracture. If you think you may have broken, fractured or chipped a bone, you should see a doctor immediately for an x-ray to confirm.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville). As Content Producer/Writer at bohan Advertising, she is a writer, editor and social media strategist.

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