Handling a Sprain or Strain

By Lynn Millar, Ph.D., PT, FACSM

Q: What is a sprain?
A: A sprain is an injury to a joint ligament. Ligaments are the strong bands of tissue that connect one bone to another at a joint. The mildest sprain (first degree) has little tearing, pain or swelling, and joint stability is good. The second degree sprain has the broadest range of damage, with moderate instability, and moderate to severe pain and swelling. The most serious sprain is a third degree sprain. The ligament is completely ruptured and the joint is unstable.

Q: What is a strain?
A: A strain is damage to muscle fibers and to the other fibers that attach the muscle to the bone. Other names for a strain include “torn muscle,” “muscle pulls” and “ruptured tendon.” Muscle injuries are classified from first (least severe) to third (most severe) degree strains. A first-degree strain has little tissue tearing, mild tenderness and pain with full range of motion. As with the sprains, the second-degree strain has a wide variability. Muscle or tendon tissues have been torn, resulting in very painful, limited motion. There may be some observable swelling or a depression at the spot of the injury with a second degree strain. The third-degree strain involves complete rupture of a part of the muscle unit. Motion will be severely decreased or absent. Pain will be severe at first, but the muscle may be painless after the initial injury.

What should I do if...
Management of both sprains and strains follows the “PRICE” principle:
P – Protect from further injury
R – Restrict activity
I – Apply Ice
C – Apply Compression
E – Elevate the injured area

IMPORTANT: If you suspect more than a mild injury, cannot put weight on the limb, or it gives way, see your doctor.

For information on how to prevent sports injuries, visit our Injury Prevention page!

This content was provided by American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the world's largest sports medicine and exercise science organization and proud content provider for NBA FIT