It can be difficult to tell these two injuries apart. So how do you know what's really causing the pain in your ankle, knee, wrist, or back? Health's medical editor explains the signs of a sprain and strain you need to look for.

By Roshini Rajapaksa, MD
Updated January 11, 2017
Credit: Getty images

Sprains and strains sound similar, but they involve different types of soft tissues and parts of the body. A sprain is when you overstretch or tear a ligament, the band of tissue that connects two bones and stabilizes a joint. A strain, on the other hand, is the tearing or overstretching of a muscle or a tendon (the cord of tissue that joins muscle to bone). Sprains most commonly happen in the ankle, knee, and wrist, whereas strains often involve the lower back or hamstrings.

The symptoms may be similar (pain and swelling), but there are a few telling signs that help ID the type of injury. If it’s a sprain, you may have a hard time moving the joint where the ligament is located, and you may hear or feel a “pop” in the joint when the injury occurs. Those with strains often experience muscle spasms or cramping around the injured area; they may not be able to move the muscle very much. If the injuries are mild, you can typically treat both at home through rest, icing the area, compression and elevation, as well as taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Physical therapy or surgery may be necessary to rehab more serious injuries.

Health’s medical editor, Roshini Rajapaksa, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.