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The Basics: Sprains, Strains, and Fractures…What's The Difference?

The Basics: Sprains, Strains, and Fractures…What’s The Difference?

by Owen Campbell, PT, DPT, OCS1 Comment

“I sprained my hamstring!” “I didn’t break it. I fractured it.” “He had a bad ankle strain.” Physical therapists, occupational therapists, and most medical professionals cringe when we hear this at parties, in the media, or our clinic. The tactful among us do their best to resist the urge to correct, but let’s face it, we are only human.

There is a clear difference between the term “sprain” and “strain” in medical books. A sprain occurs when there is an injury to the soft tissue that holds two bones together known as a ligament. A strain occurs when there is an injury to a muscle. They both have different grades ranging from a slight tear in the ligament or muscle fibers (grade one) to a complete separation of the ligament or muscle (grade 3).

This grading can significantly affect how long it will take to recover. For instance, tweaking your ankle by stepping off a curb is likely a grade one sprain, while tearing your knee ACL in a basketball game is a grade three sprain. The ankle takes a couple of weeks to recover, while the ACL takes surgery and the better part of a year.

The same goes for strains of a muscle. Kobe Bryant missed almost an entire basketball season with a grade three calf muscle strain that required surgery, while my sore calf from trying to grind out a single in the weekend softball game will only bother me for a week or so.

Sometimes, however, the pain from a part of your body may not be a soft tissue injury, like a sprain or strain. It may be an injury to your bone. Fracture is the technical term for breaking a bone. They can range from a hairline fracture that will heal with rest over a few months to a displaced fracture that may or may not require surgery and can be life-threatening if it causes bleeding, breaks the skin, introduces infection, or is in the spine.

When someone has pain, it’s tough for your healthcare practitioner to know how bad the damage is just by looking at it. Physicians typically order X-rays first to ensure the worst-case scenario – the fracture, as mentioned earlier – isn’t present. Clinical signs and symptom clusters can rule in or out a fracture and have similar accuracy to X-ray. If there is no sign of fracture, the provider will decide based on a host of factors to determine what is best for you.

Not sure if you have a sprain, strain, or fracture? Come see us!

Physical therapists are trained to notice the signs of sprains, strains, and fractures and what to do when suspected. If you have any type of pain, recent or chronic, stop in for a free assessment, and an Athletico Physical Therapist will be able to start you on your way to feeling better today.

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*Per federal guidelines, beneficiaries of plans such as Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare, VHA and other federally funded plans are not eligible for free assessments.

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

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Owen Campbell was a physical therapist at Athletico Physical Therapy at the time of this blog.

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