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What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?


A sprain is the damage or tearing of ligaments; on the other hand, a strain also known as pulled, torn muscles or ruptured tendons, is damage to muscle fibers.



When a lot of stress is applied to a joint, the ligaments that hold the bones together may be torn or damaged.


The severity of a sprain depends on how badly the ligaments are torn. Any ligament can be sprained, but a majority of the time, the injured ligaments are at the ankle, knee, and finger joints.

Degrees of Sprain

1st degree: sprains that are mild injuries in which there is a stretching or mild tearing of the ligament, yet no joint function is lost. The sprain is followed by slight tenderness and swelling.

2nd degree: sprains that are caused by a partial tear in the ligament. The sprain is followed by obvious swelling, tenderness, pain, joint laxity, and decreases function of the joint.

3rd degree: sprains that are caused by complete tearing of the ligament. The sprain is followed by severe pain, loss of joint function, and widespread swelling. Although, 3rd degree sprains may be very painful when it occurs, it is sometimes followed with no pain after the ligament fibers have been completely torn, since nothing is pulling on them. In this case, however, the injury will be accompanied by a significant loss in joint stability.



Strains most often occur because a muscle lacks the flexibility, strength, or endurance to perform a certain activity. Usually, this occurs where the muscle meets the tendon, although they can also occur in the middle of the muscle as well.


Strains are not as painful to experience as having a sprain. Sprains that are repeatedly injured in the same joint are prone to future sprains due to less stability.

1st degree: strains are considered mild. A few muscle fibers are torn. This strain is followed by swelling and soreness. Stretching or contraction of the muscle may be painful.  The individual usually recovers quickly.

2nd degree: strains that disrupt the muscle tendon. More muscle fibers are torn. This strain is followed by a greater level of pain, loss of strength and limitation in active motion, and maximum tenderness can be felt.

3rd degree: strains that completely ruptured in the muscle tendon. This strain is followed by severe pain and the damage is extensive. The individual will report hearing a loud pop or snap when the injury occurred. The site of injury is quite visible and there will be a significant defect in the muscle that can be felt with the fingers. The area of injury will often have very serious bruising as well.

Important note for both sprains and strains: 

Both acute and chronic sprains and strains are more likely to occur when they have previously been stressed upon. Scar tissue that repaired the original strain is a weak point in the muscle’s function, and is susceptible to vulnerability.

When should you find a doctor?

1st degree sprains and strains can usually heal on its own, given the time and care. 2nd degree sprains are often seen by a physician, who may take an x ray of the area to differentiate between a sprain and other serious joint injuries. In these cases, in order to prevent more complications, the method of RICE is recommended. Rest, Ice, for 48 hours, Compression, and Elevation of the sprain or strain above the level of the heart. For 3rd degree sprains and strains, surgical repair will be needed; although, there are also instances that surgery is not performed because the muscle does not play a crucial role and the potential dangers or surgery outweigh the benefits.

What degree of injury can acupuncture treat?

Acupuncture can effectively be used to treat 1st and 2nd degree sprains and strains, while speed the healing process in damaged tissues by moving blocked energy from the area. 3rd degree sprains and strains cannot be treated by acupuncture and is advised to get an x ray done with a primary care physician.