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The difference between a Sprain and a Strain

Have you ever experienced a strain or sprain and wondered whether you freeze to create ease, or treat with heat? It's a common conundrum.

What is a Strain?

A strain is where we have overloaded or stretched a muscle or tendon, which may have caused some slight tearing of the fibres. Muscle strains are common in the lower back, legs, and shoulders.

This can be caused by an awkward movement when lifting or moving something, be it heavy or light; walking or exercising on an uneven surface or twisting quickly etc. and can result in immediate and severe pain, muscular spasms and difficulty moving the affected area.

How do I treat a strain?

  1. It's important to rest until the spasm or pain subsides,

  2. Place an ice pack over the area, but ensure you wrap it in a tea towel or something similar first so you don't have direct contact of ice on skin,

  3. Move gently and avoid placing too much weight on the damaged area,

  4. Take simple painkillers such as paracetamol or Nurofen (if you are able to take them*)

  5. If the pain is persistent then definitely seek medical advice!

What is a Sprain?

A sprain is where we may have over stretched or torn a ligament that supports a joint.

This can be caused by over rotating or twisting a joint such as an ankle or wrist. You may feel immediate pain and notice instant swelling and discolouration.

How do I treat a sprain?

  1. Sit down and elevate the injury, ensure you're well supported,

  2. Place an ice pack over the area, but ensure you wrap it in a tea towel or something similar first so you don't have direct contact of ice on skin,

  3. Compress - apply a firm support or elasticated bandage around the injury,

  4. Gently move the joint within your limits and if pain allows.

When treating a sprain always remember...R.I.C.E


It's important to rest your body and affected area in order for it to heal. After an injury, it’s important to limit any strenuous activities involving the limb or area.


Ice packs will help to minimise the swelling; it causes the blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood supply to the injury.

It’s important to apply ice to the area immediately following an injury, but only do this for up to 20 minutes at a time - no longer. You can apply it several times a day.


Compression will reduce the inflammation by preventing blood and other fluids accumulating around the injury.


As a general rule, after an injury, individuals should try to keep the affected area higher than their heart. Elevating the injury above the heart will decrease the blood flow to the area.

How can we prevent Strains and Sprains?

Regular exercises that help you to stretch and strengthen your body (such as walking, yoga, pilates, using weights etc.) are great ways to maintain a good physical condition and can help reduce the risk of muscle strains in sport, fitness, work or general activities.

Whether your job is physical or desk based, you're at home with your children or retired; keeping your body strong, flexible and mobile should definitely be on top of your weekly things to do list!

Important Note

More serious sprains can result in long lasting injuries, which may cause repeated injury as the ligaments can become weaker. It's important to seek medical advice and treatment.

Our body is always talking to us, it's important to listen and not push ourselves. If a strain or sprain persists, seek medical advice and support. It may require treatment or guidance from a physiotherapist.

Please speak to your GP, Clinician or Physical Therapist if you are concerned about a strain or sprain and before getting back into a regular exercise routine if you are recovering.

Some of the information has been adapted from First Aid For AllFirst Aid at Work Guidebook and Sports Medicine Oregon.

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