When it comes to common sports injuries, few body parts suffer as many blows as our tendons and ligaments. But despite the prevalence of sprains, strains, and other related injuries, few athletes actually understand the difference when it comes to tendon vs. ligament.

In fact, many don't even know what these body parts are in the first place.

However, the more you know about your body and its inner-structures, the better-equipped you are to prevent injuries and treat them when they do occur. This includes injuries to your tendons and ligaments.

So how does a tendon vs. ligament differ when it comes to its role in the human body? And how are these structures affected by common sports injuries?

A Quick Overview Of The Musculoskeletal System

Before we dive into the tendon vs. ligament discussion, we need to take a quick look at the musculoskeletal system as a whole.

As children, we all learn a bit about our muscles and bones (like how the human skeleton includes 206 separate bones). But, with the exception of those who study health science in college, this education rarely extends into adulthood.

What does that mean for the average person?

It means that very few people know anything about their musculoskeletal system and how it can affect their day-to-day lives. Even amateur athletes are unlikely to know much about the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments that allow them to do what they love.

So what is the musculoskeletal system?

Well, the most prominent parts of this system include your bones and muscles. Hence the term musculoskeletal.

Bones

bones

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Your bones provide structural support throughout your entire body. Without them, we would be nothing more than undignified bags of flesh.

Your bones help store certain nutrients and manufacture blood cells. In some cases, your bones also protect your organs and other body parts by acting as a rigid cage.

But without muscles to hold it all together, your skeleton would be completely immobile.

Muscles

muscular anatomy

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On top of physically holding the skeleton together, even at rest, your muscles are responsible for every single movement you make.

And, yes, we mean every movement.

Your muscles are responsible for lifting weights in the gym, waving to a friend, and chewing your food. Without your muscles pushing and pulling against your bones, you would be about as active as a science teacher's plastic skeleton.

Although most people think of the muscles when it comes to physical strength, the skeleton also plays a crucial role in this function. Strong bones and joints produce additional leverage for the muscles to work against.

Without healthy bones and joints, even the strongest muscles would be rather useless. Vice-versa, your bones won't move much if your muscles are weak and atrophied. Because of this, the musculoskeletal system only works when all of its parts are functioning.

And as you've probably already guessed, your tendons and ligaments are also integral parts of this system.

Tendon Vs. Ligament: Understanding The Difference

Even if your understanding of the human body is a little better than average, the difference between a tendon vs. ligament isn't exactly common knowledge. In fact, many people think these two words refer to the same thing.

In reality, tendons and ligaments are two distinctly different parts of the human body. With that said, though, their structures and functions are quite similar.

Tendons

hand

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First, let's break down the structure and function of a tendon.

As we mentioned above, muscles move bones. To do this, your muscles must connect to your skeleton in some way. This is where your tendons enter the picture.

Keeping it fairly simple, a tendon is just a piece of tough tissue that connects a muscle to a bone.

One of the best examples of a tendon is the Achilles tendon stretching from your ankle to the bottom of your calf. Although most of your tendons are quite small or buried under layers of adipose and muscular tissue, you can easily see and feel your Achilles tendon through your skin.

While tendons are part of the musculoskeletal system, they aren't technically muscle or bone.

Instead, tendons are tight bundles of collagen fibers (a type of protein) and elastin. These bundles are flexible, at least to an extent. But healthy tendons don't offer any notable stretch or elasticity.

Ligaments

ligaments

Image by flickr

So how do we differentiate a tendon vs. ligament? Well, the most obvious difference is that ligaments connect bone to bone, not muscle.

While your tendons facilitate movement, your ligaments work to stabilize your skeleton. Most of your ligaments are concentrated around joints, where they hold the connecting bones in place and prevent dislocation.

Like tendons, ligaments are made of collagen fibers. But since ligaments contain less of this tough connective tissue, they are more elastic than tendons.

Your body also contains some ligaments that aren't connected to bone at all.

For example, a woman's uterus is held in place within the pelvis by ligaments. The same is true for other internal organs, like the liver and stomach.

When it comes to sports injuries, though, the ligaments around your joints are the ones to keep an eye on.

Common Injuries Of The Tendons And Ligaments

Whether you're an athlete or not, knowing the differences between a tendon vs. ligament can help you prevent and treat several common injuries.

Many of the most common sport-related injuries directly affect the tendons or ligaments. While you can't prevent falls or accidents, you can wear protective gear and take other precautions if you know you have an area prone to injury.

Sprains

It's safe to say that almost everyone has suffered a sprain or knows someone who has. But far fewer people know the anatomy behind this injury.

Your ligaments work to protect and stabilize the joints in your body. Most of the time, this stabilization is enough to keep your bones in their proper place.

Sometimes, though, a joint will take on an extreme amount of force. If your joint twists or extends past its ligaments' furthest limits, the connective tissue will stretch or tear.

Mild and moderate sprains typically result in small, painful tears within the ligament fibers. In severe cases, though, it's possible to tear the ligament completely or rip the connection to the bone.

Strains

Have you spent your whole life thinking sprains and strains are the same thing? Actually, this is only partially true.

As far as injuries go, strains are very similar to sprains. But the key difference between these two types of injuries is that strains affect tendons and muscle tissue.

How do you tell these two injuries apart when they happen?

It's actually rather difficult to tell a sprain from a strain without a doctor's help. Both of these injuries cause pain, limited joint mobility, and swelling.

On the other hand, there are a few signs that you're dealing with one or the other:

If you suffer from a sprain, you're more likely to notice bruising around the affected joint. But if you suffer from a strain, you might experience muscle spasms in the affected area.

Again, get in touch with your doctor if you believe you've suffered a sprain or strain.

Tendinitis

When it comes to injuries of the tendon vs. ligament, strains aren't the only thing that can affect the former. Another common type of tendon injury is called tendinitis (also known as tendonitis).

You might know tendinitis under another name, such as:

  • Tennis elbow
  • Swimmer's shoulder
  • Runner's knee

Regardless of which tendon is affected, tendinitis causes mild pain, tenderness, and occasional swelling. Though not as debilitating as a strain, tendinitis can be a lifelong condition without proper treatment.

If you notice these symptoms appear suddenly or over time, don't hesitate to get in touch with your doctor. The sooner you treat tendinitis, the better.

What To Do If You Injure A Tendon Vs. Ligament

Fortunately, treatment is the same whether you've injured a tendon vs. ligament.

Like any moderate-to-severe injury, your first step should be a visit to the doctor. Although you can make an educated guess about the type and severity of an injury, only a licensed doctor can provide a thorough diagnosis.

In rare cases, a sprain or strain can require surgery. But for most patients, at-home care and patience are all they'll need.

Again, we always recommend visiting your doctor after injuring a joint. However, the tips below can also help prevent further damage between the injury itself and getting to your doctor.

R.I.C.E.

As with many mild sports injuries, at-home care is pretty simple and straightforward. After a strain or sprain, most doctors recommend following a R.I.C.E. regimen.

If you're not familiar with R.I.C.E., it stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

While resting is often the most important part of recovery, it can also be one of the hardest. You might be tempted to continue exercising or playing your favorite sports, but this is a recipe for slow healing and making your existing injury even worse.

Using ice on a sprain or strain is a great way to relieve swelling and pain. You might think you can survive with plastic bags full of ice, but investing in a high-quality, reusable ice pack is a much better idea.

Compression can also help alleviate some swelling and pain while you wait for your body to heal. If you don't already have elastic compression tape in your household first aid kit, it's a good idea to grab some before you actually need it.

Finally, elevation will keep swelling down and can even speed up the natural healing process.

If you're still experiencing swelling or pain, you can also take over-the-counter pain medication, like Advil or Aleve. By giving your body time to heal and following these steps, you'll be back up and moving in no time.

Keep Your Body Safe And Strong

Understanding the structure, role, and risk for injury of a tendon vs. ligament might not seem very useful now. But next time you or a teammate find themselves with one of these injuries, this knowledge will help you make a preliminary diagnosis and provide proper treatment until they can get to a doctor.

On the other hand, you don't need to wait for injury to strike before taking care of your tendons and ligaments.

Maintaining a healthy diet, following a warm-up routine, working on your flexibility, and using extra joint support (like kinesiology tape) can help ensure your tendons and ligaments stay healthy for years to come.

Do you have any tips for distinguishing tendon vs. ligament injuries? Or do you have a brace or support tape technique that you swear by for long-term joint health? Let us know in the comments below!

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