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We’ve all been there – that painful moment when we overextend a muscle doing an everyday functional movement – be it twisting to reach for something on the backseat of the car, moving boxes, or having a kickaround with the kids. Not uncommonly, it’s simply a result of a trip and fall.

If you play sport or exercise regularly, you’re particularly likely to have suffered an injury at some point1. But it’s helpful to know the difference between a strain and a sprain, when it’s serious, and how to reduce your risk of injury – before you get on a treadmill, rush into an aerobics class, shout “tennis, anyone?”, or even take a walk!

Strain or sprain?

So, what’s the difference between a sprain and a strain? Put simply, a sprain injures the bands of tissue that connect two bones together, while a strain is an injury to a muscle or to the band of tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone2.

Strains commonly occur in your back or legs; sprains usually involve one or more ligaments of your wrist, knee, ankle or thumb3,4. With a muscle strain you’ll feel instant pain the moment the injury occurs1. If it’s severe, it’ll cause swelling and bruising, and possibly even inability to move your limb1.

Treatment at home

Most muscle strains can be treated at home1. If you think you’ve suffered a sprain or strain, follow the PRICE method of treatment5:

Protect the injured area with the help of support.
Rest the affected area; you could do more damage by putting pressure on the injury.
Ice should be wrapped in a towel or an ice pack to the affected area for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours. Never place ice directly on the skin.
Compression: Wrap with an elastic bandage/elasticated tubular bandage to help minimise swelling and support the injured area.
Elevation: Elevate the injured area above heart level to help with swelling and pain. 

Signs you need to see a healthcare provider

  • The injury doesn’t feel better after treating it yourself6
  • The pain or swelling is getting worse6
  • You also have a high temperature or feel hot and shivery – you may have an infection6

Medication & recovery

Your healthcare provider may prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce the pain and inflammation of a sprain or strain. Taking OTC NSAIDs, like ibuprofen or paracetamol, can be effectiveinitially5. Physiotherapy may also be advised to aid healing7.

Although most sprains and strains improve in about 2-3 weeks, severe injuries may take a lot longer7. Avoid strenuous activity for at least 8 weeks to allow proper healing6. Usually, you can return to full activity when you’re pain-free, have full range of motion, and are at full strength7.

Reduce your injury risk

Never start physical activity with cold, inflexible muscles1. Reduce your risk of muscle strain by stretching and warming up beforehand and cooling down afterwards in the same way1.


1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Staff overview. Muscle Strain (Pulled Muscle). Available at .
2. Mayo Clinic. Staff overview. Sprains. Available at,a%20muscle%20to%20a%20bone.
3. Mayo Clinic. Staff overview. Muscle strains. Available at
4. Cleveland Clinic. Staff overview. Sprains of the Ankle, Knee and Wrist. Available at,involves%20rest%20and%20physical%20therapy.
5. NHS. Staff overview. Treatment: Sports injuries. Available at
6. NHS. Staff overview. Sprains and strains. Available at
7. HSS. Staff overview. Muscle Strain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment. Available at