Sprains, Strains, and Automobiles

Grades of an ankle strain

Sprains and strains are not one and the same—sure, they’re both injuries to the musculoskeletal system, but they’re not interchangeable.

They can both result from car accidents (that’s the automobiles part), sports, hiking, or other activities. If you’re wondering what the actual difference is, and how chiropractic can help, keep reading. We’ll keep it interesting, we promise.

What Sprains and Strains Have in Common

The terms are often confused, and though they’re not exactly the same, they both cause pain, redness, swelling, pain to the touch, and limited movement in the area they occur.


A sprain occurs when a ligament is stretched or torn. A ligament is a strong and fibrous band of rope-like tissue that connects two (or more) bones at a joint. When you suffer a sprain, you may have injured one or more ligaments. Sprains usually occur as a result of falling or twisting the wrong way, making the joint go a way it isn’t supposed to. Think: twisting an ankle incorrectly while playing sports.

There are three degrees of severity: a stretched ligament (mild), partially torn ligament (severe), or a completely torn ligament (rupture). The degree of the sprain and the number of ligaments involved generally indicate how bad the injury is.

Where do sprains happen?

Any joint can be sprained, but the most vulnerable spots in the body susceptible to sprain injury are in the upper and lower extremities of the body, most commonly the ankle, knee, and wrist:
Ankle sprain – If the foot turns inward while you run, turn, or land after jumping, you may get an ankle sprain.
Knee sprain – Sudden twisting of the knee or a blow to the knee can cause a knee sprain. Knee sprains are common with sports like football, snowskiing or basketball.
Wrist sprain – Falling and landing on your hand(s) can cause wrist injury and possible sprain.

How do I know it’s a sprain?

Signs and symptoms of sprains vary depending on how severe the sprain is. Look out for:

  • Pain
  • Swelling (meaning there could be inflammation within the joint or surrounding soft tissue)
  • Bruising
  • Instability (particularly on weight-bearing joints—the knee or ankle, for instance)
  • Inability to move and/or use the joint

Diagnosing a sprain

Wondering if you have a sprain? Diagnose it to be sure by:

Going to your doctor – Your healthcare provider will take a history and perform a physical exam to see if the history and exam results are consistent with a joint injury and/or ligament injury. They’ll check for swelling, range of motion, and joint stability.

Getting an X-ray – An x-ray will help make sure there’s not a broken bone. Ligaments can’t be seen on an x-ray, but fractures should be ruled out. An ultrasound or MRI might also be used to evaluate your injury.


Person Having Neck And Shoulder Pain. Trigger Point In Muscle

A strain is an acute or chronic soft tissue injury that’s caused by overstretching or tearing a muscle or tendon or both. (Quick reminder: Sprains happen to ligaments.) Strains occur because of trauma, overexertion, and/or repetitive movements like lifting a heavy item, overexercising, or whiplash from a car accident.

Where do strains happen?

It doesn’t take much to strain a muscle or tendon, but there are levels of strains, with some minimal that can be treated at home, whereas other strains are full tears of muscle that could require medical attention—especially if you have numbness or tingling.
Strains are common in these areas of the body, among others:

  • Lower back strain: Lifting something with poor form can easily strain your back.
  • Hamstring strain: Running with an outstretched leg and landing on it with all your weight can lead to hamstring strains.
  • Neck strain: This kind of strain can come from almost anything—poor posture, prolonged computer work, awkward positions like reading in bed, falling, or worn-out joints. Keep your body moving and in good posture to keep this injury at bay.
  • Shoulder strain: Injury or overuse often leads to shoulder strain.

How do I know it’s a strain?

You’ll likely know, but just in case, be on the lookout for:

  • Muscle soreness that is usually worse with movement
  • Muscle stiffness or weakness
  • Swelling in the strained muscle/tendon area
  • Spasms in the strained muscle/tendon area
  • RICE can be helpful for pain and swelling: Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate.

If you’re not sure whether it’s a strain, go see your medical care provider. They will do a physical exam, look at the degree of swelling and tenderness, and determine next best steps.


What do automobiles have to do with it? Car accidents commonly cause both sprains and strains. The trauma can cause both injuries to drivers and passengers, and it can worsen if not addressed with proper treatment. Muscle pain and soreness are the most common injuries chiropractic patients come in with. Strains and sprains are common after a car crash, too—all of the above can respond well to timely chiropractic treatment.

The ultimate neck sprain/strain = Whiplash

Couple involved in a car accident and feeling whiplash Whiplash is one of the most common injuries resulting from car accidents. The whipping action of your head and neck often causes a range of soft tissue damage that may not be immediately painful. Automobile accidents can cause pain several years later. Whiplash causes little tears in the muscles and overstretches the ligaments. Like a rubberband, the neck ligaments can be stretched to the point where they cannot return to their original size, causing pain and discomfort. Snowboarding, football, and other physical activities can also lead to whiplash. The chiropractors at Element Chiropractic have years of experience diagnosing and treating whiplash. Our in-office digital x-ray is incredibly useful in helping determine the extent of your whiplash injuries.

How can Chiropractic Help with Sprains or Strains?

Chiropractic care focuses on aligning and adjusting the spine, joints, ligaments, and muscles, focusing on helping the nervous systems function optimally to relieve pain and improve function. Pain and resulting issues that come with sprains and strains don’t always have to be helped with medications or surgery, but instead, your chiropractor can offer:

  • Chiropractic adjustments
  • Rehabilitation exercises
  • Targeted pain relief and massage
  • Stretching
  • Activity or work changes while you heal

All of the above can support the healing of the injured area and allow quicker recovery. It may also allow you to become stronger and prevent re-injury. Helping strains and sprains heal properly and quickly help you get back to your regular, active lifestyle. We will also refer you to an appropriate specialist, like an orthopedic surgeon, if needed. Fun fact: one recent study of persons with chronic ankle instability from repeated strains had improved symptoms and functionality with chiropractic manipulations.

Take care of your body with chiropractic care to avoid sprains and strains, and to ensure everything is working in optimal working order.