Strain, Sprain, or Break

We’ve all been there, we’ve twisted our ankle, or fallen on our shoulder and felt the intense pain of a sprain, or maybe a strain, or even a break. It’s hard to tell the difference, and sometimes sprains and strains are used interchangeably, though they have different attributes.

Strains, sprains, and breaks can virtually feel identical. The only way to know the difference is to see a healthcare provider, but there are some indicators that each has, which can inform how serious the injury is and when you should seek medical care.

Strains, sprains, and breaks, defined


Strains happen when the muscle or tendon twists, pulls, or tears.

There are two types of strains: acute and chronic. Acute strains happen when the tendon or muscle twists, pulls, or tears. Chronic strains are a result of prolonged use and lack of appropriate rest between intense activities.


Sprains happen when the ligament tears or stretches. The ligament is the tissue that connects two bones.

Certain injuries can put stress on a joint and overstretch or rupture supporting ligaments. This can happen from falling, twisting, or direct contact blows to the body. The most common type of sprain is the ankle, but all joints and ligaments can experience this injury.


Breaks happen when bones fracture, chip, or completely break.

Broken bones always need to be seen by a healthcare provider. Even if you’re unsure if the bone is broken, it’s best to have your physician examine it. Bone breaks and fractures can be serious, and if untreated and lead to complications.

Each definition is different, though sometimes the pain of a muscle strain can be as intense as a broken bone, the only way to identify the injury properly is to visit a medical professional or healthcare provider.

Who is susceptible to these injuries?

Anyone can experience a strain, sprain, or break. But athletes are susceptible to these injuries due to their level of physical activity.

Depending on the sport, different athletes are at risk for different types of injuries. For example, common injuries for sports like basketball and volleyball are ankle sprains, due to the amount of jumping required for the sport.

Contact sports like football and hockey often see strains. Physical contact can often twist, pull, or tear muscles and tendons–the tissue that connects muscles to bones.

While some sports may see common injuries, all sports and physical activity have the risk of all three of these injuries.


If you suspect you have one of these injuries, it’s always best to stop any activity that puts pressure on the injured muscle, ligament, or bone and practice the RICE method:

  • Rest: this allows the healing process to begin.
  • Ice: icing the injury can reduce inflammation and curb unnecessary pain. Ice the injury for about 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day.
  • Compress: This reduces swelling and further pain. Wrap the injury, but not too tight to cut off circulation.
  • Elevate: raise the injured area above your heart to promote blood flow to the area.

If the injury does not get better, call your healthcare provider. Or if you suspect you have a broken bone, seek medical attention immediately.

How to prevent strains, sprains, and breaks

Sometimes we can’t prevent these injuries from happening. But there are exercise and preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of strains, sprains, or breaks.

  • Slowly build muscle strength over time, don’t over-exert yourself immediately.
  • Always stretch before any activity, even walking
  • Wear appropriate shoes or protective gear
  • Stay hydrated and eat a diet rich in healthy foods