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The Difference Between Strains, Sprains and Fractures

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The Difference Between Strains, Sprains and Fractures

Dec 21, 2022

A sprain is an injury to a ligament. A strain is an injury to a muscle. A fracture is an injury to a bone. Why is it important to know the differences? Emily Harold, MD, professor of orthopedics at University of Utah Health Care, joins Tom Miller, MD, to discuss the differences in these injuries, how to identify them, and what the differences can mean for your treatment and recovery.

Dr. Miller: Strains, sprains and fractures. How do you tell which is which? We're going to talk about that next on Scope Radio.

Hi, I'm Dr. Tom Miller and I'm here with Dr. Emily Harold. Emily is a Professor of Sports Medicine here at the University of Utah in the department of Orthopaedics. Emily, tell me the difference between . . . well, what do we do? What do we start with? Is there a difference between strains and sprains and . . .

Dr. Harold: Yeah, there is a difference. So, typically, when we talk about a sprain, we're talking about an injury to a ligament. A ligament is a structure that connects one bone to another bone. When we talk about a strain, we're talking about an injury to a muscle. So they vary in terms of what we're describing and they also vary a little bit in terms of treatment.

Dr. Miller: So ligaments are the tough, fibrous tissues that connect joints together? Would that be fair?

Dr. Harold: Yes, that's fair.

Dr. Miller: So you have them in your ankles, your knees, your hips, any major joint?

Dr. Harold: Any major joint. It's a tough, fibrous tissue that connects the two bones together.

Dr. Miller: And yet a sprain is a problem between the tendon and the muscle?

Dr. Harold: Exactly. So, typically, sprains can either be located at where the tendon and the muscle connect, or sometimes they'll be within the muscle themselves.

Dr. Miller: Which is more common, sprain or strain? And also, why is it important to know the difference between the two? Is that something that the general audience should be familiar with or is that more something that a physician needs to know?

Dr. Harold: I think that it's important to know the difference because when we talk about an ankle sprain we're talking about injury to a ligament that connects the two bones. And therefore, the recovery and the treatment for that injury is going to be a little bit different than when we're talking about a hamstring sprain, which is an injury to the muscle itself.

Dr. Miller: Treatments are different?

Dr. Harold: Treatments are different. When we talk about an ankle sprain or ligament sprain, we grade those one through three, with one being just a very mild injury to the ligament and three being a complete tear in the ligament.

Dr. Miller: So, obviously, a complete tear would result in a lack of function or a severe impairment of function.

Dr. Harold: Exactly, and depending on the joint, the treatment is a little bit different. So when you hear of an ACL sprain, a complete tear of the ACL, which would be a grade three sprain, typically results in a surgical intervention.

Dr. Miller: How about the minor stage one and stage two? Are those treated with physical therapy, typically?

Dr. Harold: Typically, those are treated more with physical therapy to help get the joint moving again. Ice, anti-inflammatories. And they take about two to four weeks to recover, whereas a grade three sprain can take up to six weeks to recover.

Dr. Miller: So you're a sports medicine physician. You treat a lot of athletes and also weekend warriors, I imagine. Tell me a little bit about what are the major sprains that you see, and then later on the major strains.

Dr. Harold: So the major sprains I see would be an ankle sprain, as well as, a lot of times, knee sprain. So MCL, different ligaments in the knee that can get sprained. The major strains I see are rotator cuff, which are the muscles in the shoulder, and then I also see a lot of calf and hamstring.

Dr. Miller: So let's take a sprained ankle. That's a fairly common injury, I would think, among athletes and just people who are exercising on a day-to-day basis, and step off a curb incorrectly. Do you always need an x-ray of that? I mean, how does one proceed? Let's say they have swelling, they have pain, does that need to be evaluated by a physician? And how would they know?

Dr. Harold: That's a good question. So there is a set of rules called the Ottawa Ankle Rules, that came out of Canada, where they looked at a lot of patients who had an ankle sprain and they tried to determine which ones were at risk for a fracture and which ones were at risk just for a ligament injury. And so there are some rules you can follow. One is if you can walk on your ankle right after the injury, that's a good sign.

Dr. Miller: Bear weight and walk.

Dr. Harold: Bear weight, exactly. The other is we look for tenderness on either side of the ankle on the bony prominences, both on the inside and the outside of the ankle, as well as if anyone has tenderness on the outside or the lateral part of their foot.

Dr. Miller: And if you have either of those debilities, what next?

Dr. Harold: Then you should come in and get an x-ray, just to make sure that you don't have a fracture with the injury.

Dr. Miller: So you could go to an urgent care clinic, you could go to your primary care physician or even a sports medicine physician?

Dr. Harold: Yeah, all three would be able to handle that with an x-ray and let you know if it's a fracture or just a sprain.

Dr. Miller: So sometimes, there's this difficulty in distinguishing whether it's a fracture or whether it's actually just a sprain?

Dr. Harold: Yes.

Dr. Miller: Okay. Other joints that are concerning for either fracture or strain? I think of ankle, most commonly, and then knee is one where . . .

Dr. Harold: Ankle, knee, I think wrist.

Dr. Miller: Wrist?

Dr. Harold: I'll see some people who fall on their wrist and there's concern whether it's a fracture, or whether it's a sprain or a strain. And that doesn't have a set of rules to guide x-ray so, typically I'd say if it's really swollen and if you have limited movement, those are the times that I would get an x-ray.

Dr. Miller: So if you're lacking function in that hand because of swelling and pain, that needs to be checked out, especially if it goes on any longer than maybe a day. Or if it just hurts incredibly, it needs to be checked out. Okay. So let's talk about strains. You've mentioned hamstring.

Dr. Harold: Yes.

Dr. Miller: And is that the most common that you're familiar with or that you deal with on a day-to-day basis?

Dr. Harold: Because I treat a lot of the younger athletes, I see that probably most commonly.

Dr. Miller: And what do you do to rehabilitate that? What's the main treatment there?

Dr. Harold: The main treatment there is to keep from over-stressing it when it's still injured. So usually, we start with some gentle stretching, usually some physical therapy. Avoid any kind of sprinting or any kind of activity that really stresses it until it slowly heals with time, and that can take up to a month.

Dr. Miller: I imagine you work very closely with physical therapists?

Dr. Harold: Yes.

Dr. Miller: And so a person with either a sprain or strain would end up maybe going to a physical therapist if it was a non-operative injury?

Dr. Harold: Yeah, absolutely, and I would say at least 90 to 95% of all of them are non-operative.

Dr. Miller: That's great to know.

Dr. Harold: So most injuries require physical therapy, some time off from the activity that really bothers it, but very few ever go on to require surgery.

Dr. Miller: Emily, you mentioned something earlier, talking about non-steroidals. Could you talk about that and what a non-steroidal is?

Dr. Harold: Yeah, a non-steroidal is a drug that helps with inflammation. If you get them over the counter, brand names like ibuprofen, Aleve, or naproxen, Advil, those are medicines that people take to help with inflammation. Now, I think it's worth noting that it hasn't been shown to heal anything quicker, it's more of a pain alleviator.

Dr. Miller: Should they go to the drug store and pick up ibuprofen or Naprosyn, common non-steroidals that are available without a prescription? Or do you have a certain way that you prescribe them or tell them how to use them so that they don't overuse those types of medicines? Because they do have side effects.

Dr. Harold: Yeah. I typically tell my patients that if they have a lot of pain, they should take the dose that is written on the over-the-counter bottle and take that for pain only. And once their pain starts to get better, they should stop the medication as they tolerate it. There are some doctors who will tell people to take it constantly for one or two weeks. Again, I don't think there's any data behind either option. I think it's more of a physician and patient preference.

Dr. Miller: So, Emily, we just talked about sprains, strains and fractures. Could you just summarize what we said? And we said quite a bit but I think, for the audience, a little bit of a recap would be good.

Dr. Harold: Absolutely. So a sprain is an injury to a ligament, which is a piece of tissue that connects a bone to a bone. A strain is an injury to where the muscle and tendon are connected. And a fracture is any break in the bone, regardless of how many pieces it is in or how big it is. All of these are treated a little bit differently, and . . .

Dr. Miller: I think, as you said, 90% of them . . .

Dr. Harold: . . . most of them are non-operative.

Dr. Miller: . . . that don't require procedure and operation to heal.

updated: December 21, 2022
originally published: October 4, 2016