Understanding the Difference Between Strains and Tears

Jul 3, 2022

Difference Between Strains and TearsWhen describing an injury, many people will use the terms sprain, strain, and tear interchangeably. However, these are separately diagnosable injuries. While the terms may seem similar, the differences are important and distinct.

Athletes are the most susceptible to these types of injuries, but non-athletes can suffer from them too. You can strain, sprain, or tear something by over-exercising, tripping over a curb, or even lifting a box incorrectly.

Soft tissue injuries can be sudden or even chronic. In order to treat these injuries accurately, your doctor must first know what part of the anatomy has been injured, how it occurred, and how severe it might be. You might think you’ve sprained your ankle, but without a proper evaluation, it could be a tear. Keep reading to learn the differences between strains, sprains, and tears.

What Is a Strain?

A strain is an injury to the tendon or muscle that is sometimes described as a twist or pull. Acute strains are most often seen in contact sports like football or soccer. Strains as a result of repetitive motion are seen in sports like golf or tennis.

A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscle to bone. They let your bones move as a result of muscles tensing and relaxing. Tendons are very strong and, as a result, are resistant to tearing. Despite this, they are susceptible to injury.

A mild strain can best be described as an over-stretching of the tendon or muscle. A moderate to severe strain is usually a rupturing of the tendon or muscle.

Acute strains are caused by stretching or pulling a muscle or tendon. Chronic strains are the result of overuse of muscles and tendons through prolonged, repetitive movement. Not getting enough rest during intense training can cause strain.

One of the first lines of defense against a strain is to stretch before exercising. If you know you are going to be lifting and carrying heavy items, such as when moving, it is helpful to stretch first and ensure you are lifting items correctly and asking for help when things might be too heavy. Some parts of the body are more susceptible to strains than others. Back and hamstring strains are the most common. However, during certain sports, the following are some examples of the most common strains:

  • Legs and ankles: due to jumping and quick dashes while running.
  • Hands and forearms: any sport that includes gripping like gymnastics and golf
  • Elbows: baseball, tennis, and other sports, including throwing.

What Are the Symptoms of a Strain?

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Swelling around the affected area
  • Cramping

How Are Strains Treated?

Most strains can be treated at home, usually with rest and ice. Compression can also aid in the recovery of swelling. If relief is not apparent within 24 hours, it is best to seek medical attention. AICA Atlanta can assist in evaluation and treatment, so please call us today!

If imaging is required, your doctor will likely order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to diagnose soft tissue injury. Occasionally ultrasound is utilized to aid diagnosis. During your evaluation test, ascertaining your range of motion can indicate the severity of the strain.

An alternative treatment we offer at AICA Atlanta is cold laser therapy. This treatment is used to reduce swelling and inflammation. Commonly used to treat minor injuries and sprains, cold laser therapy helps reduce swelling and inflammation and can also help reduce muscle spasms you may experience due to a strain. This treatment is noninvasive and can be a great supportive treatment when undergoing long-term therapy for a severe strain.

Once your injury has been thoroughly assessed, it is common to continue rest and ice treatment in addition to physical therapy. During physical therapy, our expert physical therapists at AICA will work with your orthopedist to slowly rebuild the strength in the affected muscles and tendons to ensure long-term recovery.

What Is a Sprain?

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments in a person’s body. Often caused by undue stress to a joint and overstretching of the ligament involved.

A ligament is a band of tissue responsible for connecting joints and ensuring their stability. Ligaments have limited stretch to ensure joints don’t twist the wrong way, bones and organs stay in place, and strengthen joints. Ligaments are injured (sprained) when they are forced to move in the wrong direction.

Unlike a strain, sprains are most often acute vs. chronic since they typically occur when a person twists or falls in a way that forces the ligaments out of their normal position. The most common type of sprain is a sprained ankle. Approximately 25,000 people sprain an ankle every day. The second most common location to suffer a sprain is the knee. This is a common injury seen in athletes due to quick position changes whilst running. Sprains of the thumb or wrist are also common and typically occur when a person catches themselves on their outstretched palms during a fall.

Your doctor may use a grading scale when describing your sprain.

  • Grade I – stretching of the ligament, some possible instability of the joint. Mild swelling and bruising are present and it can usually be treated at home.
  • Grade II – more serious stretch of the ligament with some possible tearing, associated with bruising, swelling, and looseness of the joint.
  • Grade III – ruptured ligament, comparable to a broken bone in that you cannot put weight on the affected joint, complete joint instability.

What Are the Symptoms of a Sprain?

  • Feeling a ‘pop’ when falling or twisting
  • Sharp pain
  • Swelling
  • Limited range of motion
  • Bruising
  • Joint instability

What Are Treatment Options for a Sprain?

Treatment Options for a SprainSprains and strains have similar treatments. First, stop the activity that caused your sprain. Rest is paramount to healing. You want to avoid further stress on the affected ligaments. Icing the area can reduce pain and swelling. Elevation and compression are great treatments in addition to ice and rest. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can also help reduce pain and swelling.

If you have suffered a sprain and experience any of the following, please seek medical attention:

  • No relief after home treatments of ice, rest, and elevation
  • Inability to bear any weight
  • Joint immobility
  • Numbness or tingling to the affected joint

Our expert orthopedists will evaluate the sprain to determine an appropriate course of treatment. A physical exam can include identifying and monitoring any swelling and bruising. Tests to ascertain your range of motion can assist in the grading of the sprain. If imaging is required, your doctor will likely order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to diagnose soft tissue injury. X-rays might be performed to determine if there are any associated fractures or dislocations.

Once your injury has been thoroughly assessed, it is common to continue rest and ice treatment in addition to physical therapy. During physical therapy, our expert physical therapists at AICA will work with your orthopedist to slowly rebuild the strength in the affected muscles and tendons to ensure long-term recovery. For more severe sprains, surgery might be necessary.

An alternative treatment we offer at AICA Atlanta is cold laser therapy. This treatment is used to reduce swelling and inflammation. It is most commonly used to treat minor injuries such as a sprain, knee pain, or muscle strains.

What Is a Tear?

While sprains affect ligaments and strains affect muscles and tendons, all three of these anatomical components can be torn. A tear is the most severe injury to these areas. Tears can be milder than the others but are still serious, and prompt treatment is essential.

Tears often occur for the same reason as a sprain or strain, such as overuse weakening the tendon or ligament or a sudden forceful rending. Tears can keep you out of commission for a lot longer than a sprain or strain, however.

A severe strain of the muscle can sometimes be classified as a muscle tear. Usually, a muscle tear is only diagnosed when a strain is a complete tear of the involved muscle.

Two types of tears you might be familiar with are MCL and ACL tears. An MCL tear is a tear of the medial collateral ligament. This ligament prevents your femur from sliding out of place and typically occurs when the knee is hit from the side. An ACL tear is a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament. The ACL prevents your shin bone from sliding forward, and injuries to the ACL are commonly found in athletes who jump and pivot. Both of these types of tears are frequently seen in athletes, the population at highest risk for strains, sprains, and tears.

Symptoms of a Tear

  • A popping feeling
  • Sudden severe pain
  • Severe swelling and bruising
  • Inability to bear weight
  • Visual deformity

How Are Tears Treated?

Initially after a tear occurs, you should treat it similarly to a strain or sprain before seeking prompt treatment. However, you might not know you’ve torn something without appropriate diagnostics. If you experience any severe pain, immobility, visual deformity, or inability to walk, contact AICA Atlanta for an evaluation by one of our expert orthopedic doctors.

A complete physical evaluation of the injured area is always a first step in diagnosing a tear. The following imaging will also assist your orthopedist in diagnosing and developing a treatment plan:

  • X-Ray – rule out possible bone fractures that could have occurred at the same time. However, x-rays do not show ligaments or muscles.
  • MRI – will give the best picture of the injury. MRI will show hard and soft tissues and any trauma they’ve incurred.
  • Ultrasound – is another diagnostic tool that can show muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

An accurate diagnosis of a tear is crucial to an appropriate and comprehensive treatment plan. Many tears will require surgery, slower rehab, and restricting sports activities until fully healed. Physical therapy is highly beneficial to the healing of a muscle tear either post-surgery or if surgery isn’t warranted. It helps improve your flexibility and strengthen the muscles surrounding the injury. The goal is to safely get you back to your daily activities, prevent complications, and ensure long-term success after a muscle tear. Often a chiropractor can help your recovery process through indirect treatment. Especially during a long recovery, your spine can become misaligned when sitting for long periods. A chiropractic adjustment can help relieve pain and stiffness to make your recovery more comfortable.

Can You Prevent These Injuries?

Strains and sprains are not always preventable, but there are some steps you can take to lessen your chances of suffering one.

  1. Stretch before and after exercising
  2. Avoid exercising too much after a break
  3. Eat a well-balanced diet and stay hydrated
  4. Wear appropriate shoes and replace them when they wear down
  5. Utilize the appropriate protective equipment when playing sports
  6. Try to avoid overuse of your joints

Regarding overuse injuries, these can occur in athletes who participate in sports regularly or even people who work jobs with repetitive motions, such as data entry clerks and supply warehouse workers.

Injuries from overuse will worsen with time if not treated properly, and preventative steps take to help lessen the chance of reoccurrence. Some contributing factors to overuse injuries can include not resting enough, poor technique, not using protective equipment, and not listening to your body.

When treating an injury from overuse, it is imperative to slowly build up to your full standard of use. Our experts at AICA Atlanta can help you develop a rehab program to make sure any injury is treated appropriately and set you up for continued success as your return to sports or work.

Contact Us Today!

To learn more about strains, sprains, and tears, please contact AICA Atlanta, a multi-specialty orthopedic clinic staffed 24/7 with experts ready to treat your injuries. If you are experiencing pain from a sprain, strain, or tear, please contact us today. Our expert team has orthopedists, sports medicine specialists, and physical therapists who will evaluate your injury and develop a treatment plan to relieve your pain and set you on the path to long-term recovery.


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