Elbow sprains and strains

What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

A sprain involves a stretch or tear of a ligament, which joins two bones together and keep the joints stable, whereas a strain is when a muscle and/or tendon is injured (tendons join muscles to bones).


  • Sprains are normally caused by an accident such as a fall which puts stress on the joint and over-stretches or ruptures a ligament, for example by falling on your arm when it is outstretched
  • Strains are caused by repetitive use of muscles and tendons without taking enough breaks, for example during training. They can also be caused by repeated twisting movements or overstretching

You are more likely to have a sprain or strain if you are overweight or do not warm up properly before exercise. Elbow strains are common in athletes who play racquet, throwing and contact sports.


  • Sprains: symptoms usually include pain, bruising, swelling and inflammation, as well as a ‘popping’ or tearing of the joint. In the most serious sprains, there is extreme pain as ligaments tear or separate from the bone which can cause joint instability
  • Strains: symptoms include pain, muscle weakness, swelling and cramping. In the most serious cases the muscle and/or tendon may be ruptured (for example, in a distal biceps tendon rupture)


A medical examination and discussion of your symptoms is usually backed up by an X-ray and, in some cases, an MRI scan to assess the extent of any damage.


Applying ice that has been crushed and wrapped in a towel, along with rest and elevation, can help reduce your symptoms. In some cases, surgery may be necessary, particularly if there is joint instability.

How can I avoid sprains and strains?

As well as building up your muscle strength, you should make sure that you always warm up properly and do stretching exercises before taking part in sport.


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