Sprains or strains, what's the difference?

  • A strain happens when a muscle or sometimes a tendon (the elastic tissue that connects muscle to bones) has been overstretched or torn. 
  • A sprain is when a ligament (which connects bones together), is over-stretched or torn.

What causes sprains and strains?

Children can be very competitive at their sports. Sprains or strains can happen to the wrist, thumbs, ankles (most common sports injury), knees, feet, legs of back. They may be hesitant to rest an injury for fear of missing out or they may have an overuse injury from playing too much of one sport.

Also, during growth spurts, the knee joint can be more flexible, which can increase strain on the ligaments and tendons, which may lead to injuries. However, pain after running around, playing in the garden, climbing over furniture or the many other vigorous activities at home (where there is a clear cause to the injury), might indicate a minor strain or sprain.  

Sprains or strains can happen to the wrist and thumbs, ankles (most common sports injury), knees, feet, legs or back.

How can I tell if my child has a sprain or strain?

Helping your child or teenager feel better when they've hurt themselves is the first thing you will want to do. Stay calm and assess the injury first. If your child complains of pain, tenderness or weakness in the injured area, it looks swollen or bruised, or is difficult to use, it may be a sprain or strain.

What can I do if my child has a sprain or strain?

For mild sprains and strains, for the first two to three days you can treat the injury at home. This can be done by using the PRICE system:

  • Support: support the injured area and keep it protected by using a bandage or support.
  • Rest: ensure your little one rests the injured area or limb, as much as possible, avoiding putting weight on it (if it's the ankle or the knee).
  • Ice: place an ice pack (such as frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel) on the affected area for up to 20 minutes every 2 or 3 hours.
  • Compression: wrap an elastic bandage around the injury during the day, to reduce swelling.
  • Elevation: to help minimise swelling, keep the injured body part raised above chest level if possible. For example, by lying down with the injured leg or arm resting on a cushion.

Children's paracetamol or ibuprofen are an option to help relieve pain. Nurofen for children contains ibuprofen which has anti-inflammatory properties and is suitable for children from 3 months to 12 years and over 5 kg in weight. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before giving your child medicine, to make sure they are suitable for your child.

It's not necessary to rest a sprain for too long. In order to prevent stiffness, your child can try gently moving the strain/sprain, as long as it's not too painful to do so.

How long does it take for a sprain or strain to heal?

Whilst every strain and sprain will be different, most will feel better after two weeks. More severe sprains and strains may take months to feel normal.

Tip: When your child is able to move the injured area without pain stopping them, encourage them to keep moving it gently so the joint or muscle doesn't become stiff. Full movement or vigorous activity should be avoided until your child signals that the injury is no longer painful at all.

When should I take my child to see a doctor?

If your child's sprain or strain has not improved or if the pain and swelling get worse, you should see your doctor. They may refer your child to a phsyiotherapist if their sprain or strain is taking longer than usual to heal. It's also important to see a doctor or take your child to A&E for any of the following reasons:

  • Your child is in severe pain.
  • Your child cannot stand or put weight on their leg after injuring
  • You or your child heard a snapping sound when the injury
  • If the injury is numb, is cold when you touch it or discoloured
  • If the injury has changed shape or is at an odd angle
  • If the bruising is severe or gets worse.
  • If your child is feverish or shivery (these may be signs of
  • If you suspect a bone make be broken

Note: This is not an exhaustive list, for all health matters, always speak to your doctor.

Think Prevention

One of the ways you can help prevent them from getting injured, including sprains and strains, is by making sure that they have warmed up beforehand. Teach your child to warm up their muscles before and after exercising and to wear the correct protective equipment such as knee, ankle or shin guards.

Exercising when tired or unwell can contribute to an increased risk of sprains/strains. Therefore, it is important to ensure your child is fit, well-rested and healthy before exercising.