Strains vs. Sprains: What’s the Difference and How To Recover

It can happen during a game of softball or by stumbling on the sidewalk. Strains and sprains are different injuries, but how can we know the difference and what can we do if we have a strain or sprain? Marshall Ochi, DO, with ProMedica Sports Medicine Institute, shares the difference between a strain and a sprain and what you can do to treat them.

Strains vs. Sprains

A strain is an injury that occurs to a muscle or a tendon, whereas a sprain is an injury to a ligament. These are different because tendons link muscle to bone and ligaments link bone to bone. Sprains and strains can be equally uncomfortable and may even happen simultaneously.


Regardless of whether it’s a sprain or a strain, your best bet is to follow the acronym RICE:

  • Rest: Rest from exacerbating activities to prevent further injury.
  • Ice: Apply ice to injury for 15-20 minutes several times per day but as often as hourly immediately following the injury and while injury is still acute.
  • Compression: Use and ACE wrap or compression sleeve to help decrease and prevent  further swelling. The wrap should be snug but not too tight to interrupt blood flow.
  • Elevation: Keep the injured part of the body above the level of your heart when lying down.

“If RICE therapy doesn’t significantly improve your symptoms over the course of the first day or two and you still have a significant reduction in your ability to do normal activities, the injury should be further accessed by a medical professional,” Dr. Ochi shares.

Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician, sports medicine or orthopaedic specialist, or visit an urgent care to have your injury further evaluated. The provider will determine if additional testing is needed, such as an X-ray or ultrasound to determine the severity or significance of the injury.


Recovery time for strains and sprains varies from injury to injury. Some strains and minor sprains may be better within days, some may take a couple of weeks to be back to normal and some more severe sprains may take even longer.

Help prevent future injury by rehabbing the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your injury. “Focus on remaining active and strengthening the supporting structures surrounding the area that was injured,” Dr. Ochi shares. “Additionally, focus on increasing flexibility. Being limber can help to prevent future injury.”

It may take a while for you to get back to feeling 100%. In the meantime, continue RICE therapy by resting, icing, compressing and elevating your injury, and then begin stretching and strengthening once your symptoms allow.  If you are unsure if/when you should initiate the rehab exercises, talk to your primary care physician, sports medicine or orthopaedic specialist for more guidance.