Tendon Damage vs. Ligament Injury: What’s the Difference?

Tendon damage and ligament injuries (strains and sprains, respectively) are two very different injuries that are often lumped in together. Understanding sprains and strains better is a key factor in preventing their occurrence in the first place, and in knowing when to seek proper treatment.

Causes and Symptoms

Ligaments and tendons are both soft tissues, but they have very different functions.

  • Ligaments are fibrous bands of connective tissue that connect the bones, helping to support and stabilize the joints.
  • Tendons are also fibrous, but their function is to connect muscles to bone.

Soft tissue injuries fall into two categories: sprains or strains.

  • Sprains are a ligament injury, and may be either a stretch or tear in the affected ligament. These are usually caused by a forceful trauma, like landing on an outstretched arm or bent ankle. The impact knocks the joint out of position, which overstretches (or even ruptures) the surrounding ligaments.
  • When a tendon or muscle is injured, this is called a strain. Strains are most often seen in response to overuse, as in the case of repetitive stress injuries. Strains may also be acute, occurring after a specific event that causes overstretching.

Symptoms for both strains and sprains can be very similar, and include pain, inflammation and sometimes impaired joint movement.

For mild strains and sprains, the RICE recipe is recommended: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. However, this conservative treatment approach should not replace a visit to your doctor. While you may not need hand surgery for your wrist sprain (or strain), you do still need an accurate diagnosis. The best hand and wrist surgeons can determine the true cause for your discomfort, and make sure you’re taking the right steps to recovery.

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