Strains, Sprains & Tendonitis

Understanding the difference between strains, sprains and tendonitis

Because they’re often used interchangeably, the terms strain, sprain and tendonitis confuse many of us. Here’s a primer on these terms and some exercises to help you avoid or rehab certain injuries.

  • Strains Your muscles are made up of tightly bundled fibers that merge into tendons. Tendons consist of thick, rope-like tissues that attach muscle to bone. A muscle strain is an injury to the muscle or the tendon—usually in the form of a pull or tear. Strains are typically the result of muscle imbalances, stretching or twisting, or lack of pre-exercise warm-up.
  • Tendonitis Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendon, usually due to abrupt stretching or repetitive overuse. Golfer’s elbow, tennis elbow and Achilles tendonitis are common forms.
  • Sprains Sprains involve injury to ligaments—tough, fibrous tissue that connects bone to bone and holds joints together. A sprain usually results from a fall, twist, or blow causing a ligament to be stretched or torn.

Treatment for Strains, Sprains & Tendonitis

For a strain, sprain or tendonitis, the initial treatment is RICE (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) and avoidance of activities that cause pain. Give your doctor a call if you think you may have broken a bone or if pain and swelling persist.

Triangle Pose (hamstring stretch)
This stretches hamstring muscles and helps rehab an existing strain.

  1. Stand with your feet wide apart, as shown, with your left foot pointed straight forward and your right foot pointed to the side. Start slowly; stop if you feel pain. For stability, you can do this against a wall.
  2. Extend your arms to the sides and slowly reach your right arm down your right leg and your left arm toward the ceiling, as shown. For stability, hold your right ankle with your right hand. Both knees should be straight but not locked.
  3. Hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat twice more on both sides.

Ball Squeezes (wrist & forearm strengthening)
By strengthening wrists and forearms, ball squeezes can help reduce the risk of wrist and elbow injuries. If you’re injured already, do them only if they cause no pain. Do this exercise separately from the towel curls, below.

  1. Place a rubber ball or tennis ball in the palm of your hand and squeeze 25 times. If you experience pain, use a sponge or piece of foam.
  2. Rest for 1 to 3 minutes; repeat at least 3 more times.

Towel Curls (ankle range of motion)
If you have an ankle sprain, this can help. Do the exercise separately from the ball squeeze, above.

  1. Sit in a chair with a hand towel placed in front of you on an uncarpeted floor. Keep your heel on the ground and grab the towel with your toes. Let go. Repeat until the whole towel is scrunched up under your foot.
  2. Dig your toes into the scrunched towel and push it out from under your foot. Repeat until the towel is flat.
  3. For maximum benefit, perform this exercise 10 to 30 times, 3 to 5 times a day.

Jessica Smith has a master’s degree in bioengineering. She holds certifications from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and the American College of Sports Medicine.

From our sister publication, REMEDY

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 19 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 05 Mar 2015