Major Differences Between Strains and Sprains

May 11, 2016Tom Parker

Major Differences Between Strains and Sprains

Most anyone with an active lifestyle has likely suffered from a hamstring strain, calf strain, ankle sprain or some other type of strain and/or sprain injury at some point. It's important to understand your particular type of injury and its healing process so that ultimately, you can learn how best to support and accelerate the healing process. In this article, we will draw a distinction between strains and sprains, providing you with a better understanding of the medical terminology and the range of injuries that might occur.

Difference in Strains and Sprains

Tendons attach muscles to bones and ligaments attach bones to bones. Strains are injuries to the muscles and tendons (e.g. calf strain, quad strain, groin strain).  It’s estimated that 10 to 55% of all injuries in sports are in muscle, and 90% of those are strains, making muscle strains one of the most common injuries in athletes.


Many athletes are familiar with strains that are also referred to as pulls, such as a pulled hamstring or a pulled calf muscle. Soccer, football, boxing, and other contact sports put athletes at risk for strains, as do sports that have quick starts like hurdling, long jump and running races. Thigh strains and groin strains are particularly common in soccer, hockey, and other fast-moving team sports, whereas hand and wrist strains often occur in sports that require extensive gripping like tennis, rowing, and golf.

The most severe forces may result in a complete rupture of the tendon or muscle, whereas a very minor injury may damage just a few of the muscle or tendon fibers.  Medical literature grades the strains as:

    • Grade 1: <5% of the fibers are damaged

    • Grade 2: more severe damage but not a complete rupture

  • Grade 3: complete rupture of the tendon or muscle

Even though healthcare providers use the word to describe a strain, further clarification of a mild strain to a ruptured strain is made with the use of the Grade 1, 2 or 3. Here is an MRI of a fully ruptured Achilles tendon, taken from .  You do not have to be an expert in radiology or a physician (as I was) to see the Grade 3 strain of the Achilles.

Sprains are injuries involving the stretching or tearing of a ligament (remember, ligaments connect bone to bone). The areas of your body that are most vulnerable to sprains are your knees, ankles, and wrists since ligaments stabilize and support the body’s joints. (Here’s an easy trick to help you remember the difference between a sprain and a strain: think of how the word strain contains a “t” as does the word tendon, making it easy to differentiate it from the word sprain.)

Sprains are classified by severity:

    • Grade 1 sprain (mild): Slight stretching and some damage to the fibers of the ligament

    • Grade 2 sprain (moderate): Partial tearing of the ligament. There is abnormal looseness (laxity) in the joint when it is moved in certain ways.

  • Grade 3 sprain (severe): Complete tear of the ligament. This causes significant instability and makes the joint nonfunctional.


To demonstrate the complete rupture of the ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligaments) take a look at this MRI taken from

Now that you are familiar with the differences in a strain and a sprain, be sure to check out our next article on common risk factors for these types of injuries and what you can do to reduce those risks. And now that you understand more about your hamstring strain, knee sprain, calf strain, or other sprain or strain, how best should you treat your particular type of sprain or strain?

You are more than likely familiar with the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) approach, which has been the standard of care to acute injury management since the 1960’s. The compression part of RICE is a very important but sometimes overlooked component of recovery. In our next article, we will go into detail about injury management, the benefits of compression, and why compression is still accurate in treating injuries today.  In the meantime, learn more about our medical-grade compression products and what sets us apart.

    1. Järvinen TA, Järvinen TL, Kääriäinen M, Aärimaa V, Vaittinen S, Kalimo H, Järvinen M. Muscle injuries: optimising recovery. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2007 Apr;21(2):317-31. Review. PubMed PMID: 17512485.

Tom Parker, MD CEO Body Helix

Strains, Sprains

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