Sprain or Strain? What’s the Difference?

I get this question all the time: “Dr. Jeanette, what’s the difference between a sprain and strain?”

Before I can answer that, I need to review a bit of terminology:

ligament is soft tissue that connects bone to bone. A sprain is an injury to the ligament.

tendon is soft tissue that connects muscle to bone. A strain is an injury to the muscle or to the tendon.


The severity of a sprain is graded as I, II, or III.

  • Grade I Sprain = an overstretched but not torn ligament- you will feel discomfort and may see mild swelling but you can usually put weight on it; Example: “I rolled my ankle.”
  • Grade II Sprain = a partial tear of the ligament – you will feel more pain than a Grade I, see swelling present with bruising due to broken blood vessels and torn tissue, and you will most likely not be able to put full weight on it; Example: “I twisted my knee.”
  • Grade III Sprain = complete tear or rupture of the ligament – you will have pain, swelling, bruising, and be unable to put weight on it because it will feel like the area is giving way since the tissue is completely ruptured; Example: “I tore my ACL.”

The severity of a strain is also graded as I, II, or III.

  • Grade I Strain = an overstretched muscle or tendon with or without a few muscle fiber tears; the muscle or tendon may be sore but normal strength is present; Example: “I pulled my calf muscle.”
  • Grade II Strain = a number of muscle fibers are torn; the muscle is considerably sore with or without the presence of bruising and weakness is present; Example: “Wow, I really strained my hamstring trying to sprint to catch that ball.”
  • Grade III Strain = the muscle fibers are torn all the way through and ruptured; “popping” sound is heard and immediate loss of function with severe pain, swelling, and bruising; Example: “I fell and ruptured my quad muscle – I couldn’t even stand up.”

If you experience even just a minor Grade I sprain or strain, I recommend calling a physical therapist for a conversation. When patients contact me, I perform a COMPLIMENTARY TELEPHONE CONSULTATION to determine if they can see me first or if they need to see a physician first.

In the State of Wisconsin, you can be evaluated and treated by a physical therapist without a physician referral. This can save you time and money so that your injury can start treatment faster.

Studies show that patients who seek treatment with a physical therapist within the 1st fifteen days following any injury are less likely to seek and use opioid medication (pain pills). Choose PT 1st to decrease your risk of opioid addiction and to increase the likelihood of your injury healing faster.

If you have suffered an injury, regardless if it was recent or you’ve been suffering for a long time, please click below for your FREE TELEPHONE CONSULTATION and learn your next steps.

To Your Best Health,

Dr. Jeanette



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