Sprains vs. Breaks vs. Strains: How to Tell the Difference

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDJune 4th, 2021

The difference between a sprain, strain, and break is not always obvious; all three injuries can be extremely painful and often share symptoms. In these situations, consulting with a specialist is the best (and sometimes the only) way to positively determine whether your injury is a sprain, strain, or broken bone. Broken bones will need prompt medical attention to determine treatment: splinting, casting and/or surgery. On the other hand, rest is often the best treatment for mild-to-moderate strains and sprains. For life-threatening, limb-threatening, or time-sensitive symptoms and injuries/lacerations, you should contact 911 immediately. Critical symptoms to look for that could indicate a serious injury and the need for rapid treatment include:

  • Exposed/protruding bone
  • Deformed or disfigured extremities post-injury
  • The inability to bear weight on an injured limb
  • Significant, immediate, and severe swelling

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between these injuries, their symptoms, and when to seek treatment:


Mild-to-moderate strains occur when muscles or tendons (cords of tissue that connect muscle to bone) are overstretched, pulled, or twisted. Typical symptoms of an acute strain include:

  • Limited flexibility
  • Pain and/or cramping around the injury
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Swelling/inflammation

Perstaint, or chronic, strains tend to occur at the site of a previous injury and are often caused by overuse during intense training. To avoid chronic strains, it’s important for injured individuals to properly care for their overstretched muscles/tendons by staying off the strained extremity and avoiding physical activity until the injury is fully healed. Chronic and acute strains that aren’t properly cared for can result in serious injury. In severe cases, the muscle, tendon, or both are completely or partially ruptured or torn—requiring immediate medical attention.


Unlike strains, sprains occur when ligaments—connective tissue that stabilizes joints—are overstretched, ruptured, or torn. Mild-to-moderate sprains are caused by injuries that pull or partially tear ligaments with symptoms including:

  • Bruising around the affected joint
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Difficulty using the joint’s full range of motion

In serious cases, sprains can completely tear ligaments.

Severe sprain injuries should not be treated at home, as they may require surgery, physical therapy, immobilization, or all of the above.

Bone Breaks

Unlike mild-to-moderate strains and sprains, bone breaks are serious injuries that always require immediate medical attention. Symptoms of a broken bone or fracture typically include:

  • Severe/intense pain
  • Visibly misshapen limb/joint
  • Swelling, bruising, or bleeding
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Limited mobility or inability to move

If you have a broken bone, stay still and calm until a medical professional can address the injury. If the skin is broken, there is a laceration, or the bone is protruding from the injury, call 911 immediately.

The Takeaways

The biggest difference between mild-to-moderate strains and sprains is bruising around the injury. Serious or severe sprains and strains should be treated by a medical professional, while mild injuries can be treated at home with the same self-care technique, known as RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Broken bones require immediate medical attention, where treatment and healing can be monitored.

DispatchHealth Can Treat Mild Breaks, Strains & Sprains

No one is indestructible; injuries can and will happen! When they do, it’s important to monitor for mild-to-moderate symptoms or seek immediate emergency care for severe injuries. If you’re questioning your injury’s mild-to-moderate symptoms, DispatchHealth can help! Our teams can come to your home to address your minor breaks, sprains, strains, and bruises. This way, you can stay off your injury, avoid the hassle of travel, and remain comfortable in a safe environment. We can even

X-Ray your minor injuries at home, ensuring you benefit from well-rounded, streamlined acute care. Best of all, we’re in-network with most insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid.

Learn more about DispatchHealth’s acute and advanced care services by contacting us via phone, mobile app, or website! Or click here to request care today.

For life-threatening, limb-threatening, or time-sensitive symptoms, injuries, or illnesses, contact 911 immediately.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/ligament-vs-tendon
  2. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1889
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/sprain-vs-strain
  4. https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/bone-fractures
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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