Understanding the Difference Between Back Strains & Sprains

May 25, 2021

A doctor and a woma

We hardly pay attention to how much we expect from our backs. We slouch, lift, bend, and twist all day. And all of these movements are enough to make any back complain. 

However, if you have ever tried to tell the difference between a strain and a sprain, you were probably as puzzled as everyone else asking the same question. As it turns out, people use these terms interchangeably to signify tearing or overstretching of the soft tissues around or inside their joints. 

That said, there are key differences between the two, and knowing these differences will help you differentiate between them. 

Common Symptoms 

A strain in your joints is caused by the tearing or overstretching of tendons or muscles. If you didn’t already know, a tendon is the dense connective tissue in the form of fibrous cords between muscles and bones. Muscle strains commonly occur at the lower back or the hamstring muscle.

On the other hand, joint sprains are caused by the tearing or overstretching of ligaments. These are the group of tissues that connect bones together at the joint. The ankle joint is known to be the most common area for joint sprains. 

Despite their key difference, the symptoms of strains and sprains are quite similar. This is because both of these injuries themselves are quite similar. This is why it isn’t very difficult to confuse the two. 

Symptoms of a Strain

● Muscle spasms

● Limited flexibility

● Swelling

● The affected joint aching

● Difficulty moving the joint or using it at the full range

Symptoms of a Sprain

● Bruising 

● Swelling

● Limited flexibility

● The affected joint aching

● Difficulty moving the joint or using it at the full range

As you would’ve noticed, the key difference between a strain and a sprain is that in the latter, you are bound to see bruising around a joint. In contrast, a strain may cause muscle spasms around the affected muscle or may turn them into a painful and hard knot. 

What Causes Them?

Healthy backs tend to be flexible and strong thanks to the strong muscles that go along the spine and the tough ligaments that hold the vertebrae intact. Sadly, these issues don’t always handle everyday pressure as effectively and excess strain on the back causes the pressure to tear or stretch ligaments. In other words, you have a sprain. 

In comparison, a strain can be caused because of the same factors. However, the only difference will be that it will result in you tearing or stretching a tendon or muscle. 

In either case, it doesn’t matter whether you have a sprain or a strain, you shouldn’t split hairs. If you have backache and you can’t bear it, you should visit your doctor. To your surprise, even doctors can’t always be 100% sure which of the two is causing you discomfort. Fortunately, the strategies for prevention and relief for both are quite similar and easy to pull off. 

Activities That Injure Joints

● Overexerting yourself

● Lifting a heavy object

● A repetitive motion for prolonged periods

● Accidents like slipping and falling

● Athletic activities and strenuous exercise, including jogging and running

Who May Be At Risk?

Commonly, forceful and repetitive movements tend to injure the back. Also, people who do lots of twisting, bending, and lifting won’t be strangers to either of these injuries. However, people who are accustomed to exercising much or have a sedentary lifestyle are more prone to strains and sprains. 

You see, inactivity can cause ligaments and muscles to become weak. When a person who rarely gets any exercise suddenly gets the idea to shovel their sidewalk or move a rather heavy piece of furniture, back injuries shouldn’t be very surprising. 

Common Risk Factors:

1. Risky Environment: Icy, slippery, or wet surfaces are a menace for walking. You cannot control these environmental risks. However, if you know these risks are around you might be able to avoid injury. 

2. Not Getting Enough Exercise: Lack of physical activity or conditioning can leave your muscles or joints feeling weak and not fully able to support movements.

3. Inadequate Warm Up: Both types of injuries can be prevented by giving your body enough time to warm up and cool down before and after physical activities.

4. Being Tired: When you get tired, you lose the ability to carry your body weight properly. Getting tired also means that you are less likely to maintain good form. Schedule a couple of days off between each exercise so that your body will have sufficient time to heal and rest.

How to Treat Back Strains and Sprains

If you give them enough time, most muscle and ligament injuries tend to heal by themselves, typically, within 6 weeks. However, one way to decrease the time of recovery is to stay active (within your limits, of course). A majority of those people who return to their daily schedule as soon as possible will find that their pain will gradually fade away. 

Of course, some common sense is necessary here. If your daily schedule requires you to lift heavy things or get them involved in other strenuous activities, you will have to limit your lifestyle to allow yourself some time to heal. If possible, you should avoid bed rest because lying around all day will weaken the muscles and slow down your recovery.

Also, while you’re waiting to return to full health, you could purchase some over-the-counter medicines, including ibuprofen like Advil/Motrin or NSAIDs like aspirin. However, do make sure that you follow the recommended dosage of your doctor and not take medicines longer than is necessary.

In addition, a combination of heat and cold has been found to ease back pain. To try this home treatment for yourself, try placing a cold pack (some ice or a bag of ice in a piece of cloth), over a sore spot as soon as you notice the pain. This cold pack should be used a couple of times daily for 20 minutes each time. When your pain begins to fade away, place a heating pad over the same spot for 20 minutes to help speed up relief and loosen muscles.

When to See a Doctor

Most people with strains and sprains can easily wait 4- to 6-weeks before calling their doctor. In reality, most of the pain will have disappeared during this time and orthopedic specialists may recommend X-rays. However, other cases may require quicker actions. For instance, if you have a fever, were injured rather badly, or have a cancer history, it is recommended that you call your doctor as soon as possible. 

Doctors will often diagnose your strain or sprain by excluding the causes of symptoms. Once they have conducted a short physical exam, they might request an X-ray to rule out fractures and breaks. 

If your X-ray is not conclusive, your doctor might even ask you to partake in another form of imaging test known as an MRI scan. This scan allows doctors to see a very detailed picture of your joint because they can reveal thin or small breaks that aren’t spotted in X-rays.

In case both tests don’t reveal injuries or breaks to your bones, your doctor will move forward to diagnose a simple strain or sprain. 

How to Prevent Strains and Sprains

Regular exercise can help make your muscles and ligaments immune to strains and sprains. If you are used to sitting around during your 9-to-5 or at home, what you need is an ergonomic set up to avoid back pain at work. 

Speaking of which, you might also be wondering, “Can a standing desk help my back pain?”. Well, not only can it help ease back pain but also prevent sprains and strains since they are designed to counter the adverse health effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

Moderate activity daily is a lot better than excessive activity only a couple of times a week. For instance, a Lumbar Support Office Chair could allow you a random period of exercise while you’re working and even a quick stretch during lunch. 

Make sure that you invest in high-quality equipment and not poorly designed ones. Moreover, if you invest in a standing desk, don’t stand/sit for long periods or do anything in aggressive repetitive motions. 

Keep your muscles flexible and limber and if you’ve experienced a strain or a sprain, tone down your daily activities because the pain might come back. For extra protection, try to improve your posture while sitting and standing, and don’t lift heavy objects or let your back do all the work.

Remember: you need to find that middle ground between physical inactivity and excessive physical exertion to avoid strains and sprains. 

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