Sprains, Strains, & Muscle Tears: The Complete Guide

Young fitness man holding sprained leg

Sprains, strains, and tears – they’re equally painful and can force you to take a break from your sport. They’re very similar injuries and have similar causes. Yet, these injuries are different and affect different parts of the body. Sprains are tears that happen in the ligaments when you overstretch, torque, or otherwise overstress in some way a ligament. A strain on the other hand (or a pulled muscle) is overstretching a muscle and can result in an actual muscle tear or tear in the tendon.

Usually, sprains, strains, and tears have one cause in common – they’re usually caused by an acute accident. The leg is overextended, causing a strain on the thigh muscle. The knee is jolted causing a sprain in the ligaments. Or, you change direction too fast causing a tear in your calf muscle. These injuries are common for athletes and are usually not too severe. However, this doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Learning the difference between sprains, strains, and tears can help you better treat it so you can recover quickly.

What Are Sprains?

Sprains are simply the overstretching and tearing of ligaments. The most common type of sprain is an ankle sprain. Rolling your ankle, changing direction quickly, or stepping on your ankle the wrong way can all lead to a sprain. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), sprains are classified into three levels of severity:

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

Symptoms of a sprain include pain, swelling, lack of mobility in the joint, or even hearing or feeling a pop at the time of injury. Pain will usually increase between each level of severity. For example, if you have a mild ankle sprain, you might be able to walk on it with a little pain. However, if the ankle sprain is severe, you probably won’t be able to put any weight on it at all without intense pain. You also won’t be able to move your ankle if it’s a severe sprain resulting in a tear.

Although not serious, if not treated, sprains can lead to muscle imbalances that can contribute to more pain and even injury. Most of the time, and depending on the severity of the sprain, RICE is the best treatment. For moderate sprains, you may need a brace, and some severe sprains may even require surgery to repair any tears, according to the AAOS.

Sprains are not always preventable if the cause is an acute accident. However, many times, sprains are caused by instability and lack of proper muscle training. By properly strengthening your supporting muscles, working on positioning and sports-centric movements, along with flexibility and stability training, many sprains can be prevented.

What Are Strains?

A strain is very similar to a sprain, but it’s an injury to the muscle and/or tendons as opposed to the ligaments. The most at-risk parts of the body for a strain are the foot, leg, and back. Like a sprain, a strain is the overstretching of a muscle and/or tendon. It can be stretched so far that it results in a tear.

Strains are often the result of misalignment and poor posture. This is especially true if you’ve strained your back. Lifting incorrectly or slipping and falling can cause what’s called an acute strain. However, chronic strains can occur during any movement or exercise that is prolonged or repetitive, such as baseball, tennis, and golf. According to the AAOS, sports that require quick movements put athletes at high risk of strains.

Soccer, football, hockey, boxing, wrestling, and other contact sports put athletes at risk for strains, as do sports that feature quick starts, such as hurdling, long jump, and running races. Gymnastics, tennis, rowing, golf, and other sports that require extensive gripping, have a high incidence of hand sprains. Elbow strains frequently occur in racquet, throwing, and contact sports.

Strains, like sprains, are treated with RICE. However, to prevent further injury, you should follow up any RICE treatment with specific exercises targeted for strengthening the area that’s now been weakened by the strain.

Muscle Tears – A Strain Gone Too Far

Muscle tears are the result of a strain that’s gone too far to the point of tearing the muscle. However, it’s not just a muscle that can tear but your tendon and ligaments as well. A sprain that’s serious enough can end in your ligament tearing.

While a sprain occurs from a joint being forced into an unnatural position – like twisting your ankle – a tear to the ligament occurs when that position becomes even worse. Similarly, a strain that results in a tear is when the muscles are overstretched to the point of tearing. When your muscles are put under stress, microtears happen. These micro tears happen during weightlifting and usage, which is why you’ll often feel sore after workouts. However, the larger tears occur from over-straining the muscles.

The symptoms of a muscle tear are pain in the muscle, muscle tightness, a bruised feeling, weakness, and the inability to fully stretch out the muscle.

Usually, injuries to the muscles are the result of muscle imbalances, poor training and conditioning, as well as improper use. Treatment for a muscle tear or ligament tear varies depending on severity. Often, ligament tears result in stabilization, elevation, and sometimes surgery. Muscle tears can usually heal on their own through the RICE treatment unless it’s serious enough to require a brace.

Preventing Sprains, Strains, and Tears

Sometimes, it’s impossible to prevent injuries 100% of the time. After all, accidents do happen – even to the best and strongest of us all. However, there are some things you can do to make you less vulnerable to sprains, strains, and tears. Working on muscle imbalances, strengthening the right muscles, and making sure you are moving properly will help lower your risk of these injuries. Figuring out where your vulnerabilities lie is important for any injury prevention.

Do you have weak hips or a weak core? How about your balance and stability? Do your joints have full mobility and range of motion? All these things contribute to injury prevention. If you want to prevent an injury, look at where you might have weaknesses and work to close those gaps.