What Is A Sprain?

What is a sprain? How is it different from a strain? And how do you treat it?

Sprain or Strain?

A sprain involves the tearing or disruption of ligament fibers. Whereas a strain is tearing of muscle tissue.

Both require some amount of force or stress in order to disrupt the integrity of the tissue fibers. The force doesn't need to be abnormal if the tissue is already in a weakened or degenerative state.

In a sprain the usual scenario is one of:

  1. An excessive force on a normal joint or its ligaments.
  2. A stress or force exceeding the limits of an abnormal ligament/joint

An example of number one would be when one sprains their back ligaments due to a severe auto accident or fall.

Example two would be a twisting, bending motion that sprains a facet joint ligament that has been weakened due to disc degeneration and disuse.

In the former example you have a case of macro-trauma resulting in severe sprain. In the latter you have micro-trauma resulting in a mild sprain.

In both cases there is tissue tear to some degree. This will result in some bleeding, swelling and pain. As needed inflammation sets in to repair the damage there will be heat production as well.

Another way that sprains differ from strains is that sprains do not cause spasm. However, in most cases of lower back sprain there will probably be muscle tissue tear (strain) as well. Muscle tearing will result in spasms; so if spasm is present most likely there exists a sprain-strain complex.

Treatment Of Sprains

Mild sprains of the lower back may require just a little rest to allow healing. However, resumption of normal activities should not be delayed too long in order to encourage return to normal tissue function and production of normal scar tissue.

In more extensive sprains where there is going to be more pain, swelling, bleeding and inflammation, it is important to rest about 72 hours while using ice to minimize inflammation, pain, swelling.

A support may be used in the early stages to minimize excessive motion. This will help keep the torn tissue ends in close approximation and permit proper mending.


The recommended treatment for sprains for at least the first 72 hours is Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. This is easily remembered by the acronym PRICE. This early treatment will minimize the risk of further trauma, help to control inflammation, minimize swelling and bleeding and reduce pain.

With sprains of a moderate to severe nature you need to see a healthcare provider to assure a more complete healing and proper tissue repair along with needed rehabilitation.

Proper treatment and rehabilitation will go a long way to minimize any negative long-term residual affects that could predispose you to future injury and joint degeneration.

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