Let’s say you’re lifting a fairly challenging weight, and to get past your sticking point you put a little extra oomph into it. Uh-oh, that didn’t feel good, and now you can’t continue your workout. Maybe it’s a sprain. Or is it a strain? What’s the difference, anyway?
Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they have very different meanings.
By definition, a sprain can range from a partial tear to a complete tear of one or more ligaments.
Conversely, a strain is defined as a partial or complete tear of a tendon and/or muscle.
Ligaments are stiff and rigid compared to tendons and muscles because they connect one bone to another to help provide joint stability. Muscles and tendons, on the other hand, are softer and more flexible, and tendons specifically attach a muscle to a bone.
Sprains, then, always occur at the joints.
Commonly sprained joints include the ankle, knee, shoulder and wrist. While ankle sprains are typical in most sports, shoulder sprains are more common among bodybuilders. Weightlifters often injure the acromioclavicular joint in the shoulder girdle because of the large demands placed on this joint from heavy’ pressing movements. Knees may become sprained during squats, especially if you don’t maintain proper lower-extremity alignment. Bouncing out of the bottom of a squat or twisting at the knees can put undue stress on the ligaments and lead to a sprain. And as you’ve probably experienced at some point, a sprain causes a loss of stability.
In contrast, strains always occur at the muscle belly or the tendon.
Commonly strained body parts among lifters include the hamstrings, pectoralis major, patellar tendon, Achilles tendon, rotator cuff and biceps long head tendon.
RATING YOUR SPRAIN OR STRAIN
Both types of injury are often classified as a first-, second- or third-degree sprain or strain.
Defined as a partial tear of some fibers (muscle and tendon fibers for strains, ligament fibers for sprains). About one-third of the fibers remain intact.
Defined as a larger partial tear of the fibers (muscle and tendon fibers for strains, ligament fibers for sprains). More than one-third to nearly all of the fibers are torn
Defined as a full-thickness tear of the fibers (muscle and tendon fibers for strains, ligament fibers for sprains). No fibers remain connected and this injury usually requires surgical intervention.
First- and second-degree sprains or strains usually cause a definitive loss of range of motion and pain to the injured site. Conversely, third-degree sprains or strains generally cause less pain and a greater loss of range of motion. Body-builders who abuse anabolic substances often find that while their muscles can handle the extra weight they lift, their tendons cannot. It’s essential to build a progressive tolerance to increased loads if you want to avoid a tendon rupture.
Treatment for sprain and strain
Don’t try to “work through” a sprain or strain. Rest, ice, compression and elevation (R.I.C.E.) is the best treatment.
Although the two types of injuries themselves are quite different, the treatment is similar whether for a sprain or strain. Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) is often the best protocol to help heal the injury. Once the acute inflammatory response has leveled off — usually after 2-7 days — a course of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be indicated. Aggressive treatment of sprains or strains typically consists of physical therapy with an emphasis on restoring full range of motion and strength. Flexibility exercises that target the injured area may help speed up the healing process.