A sprain/strain is a very common injury, but these two terms are sometimes confused and often used interchangeably.
What’s the Difference?
A sprain is damage to a ligament. This is what happens when you sprain your ankle, you stretch one or more of the ligaments surrounding your ankle. A strain is damage to a muscle. This also sometimes called a “pulled muscle” and involves a stretched muscle that is now painful. When either of these sprains/strains stretch out to the point of a tear, they are then known as “tears”.
How Do You Differentiate Between the Two?
One method a therapist utilizes to help differentiate a sprain from a strain is a test known as “O’Donoghue’s”. With this test, the therapist will passively put the painful area through a range-of-motion (ROM). This takes the muscles out of the equation. Then the patient will actively go through the same ROM by themselves, now engaging the muscles. If the area hurts during passive, but not active ROM, it points to a sprain. If the area hurts during active, but not passive ROM, it points to a strain, since the muscles are now doing the work. Remember that this is just one test, and not fool proof. There are plenty of cases where either injury results in a painful ROM regardless of whether its passive or active.
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Written by Dr. Brandon Buchla, DC, CSCS
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