How can I distinguish between bone, joint, and muscle injuries?

Intermountain Healthcare
Sometimes distinguishing can be very difficult. One factor is the type of injury, for example, a sudden twist where you feel a "pull" might suggest a muscle or a joint ligament or a fall onto a hand or wrist would be concerning for a bone injury. Another factor is the location of pain. Another factor is what the pain feels like--some joint injuries give a dull ache versus a muscle or bone injury might be more sharp. Swelling, bruising, redness, etc. are other clues. 
Sometimes, it's just flat out tough to tell without seeing a sports medicine or orthopedic specialist for a checkup or testing (e.g. x-rays). We're always happy to help.
 Dr. Kathleen Handal, MD
Emergency Medicine
Here's some information that should help you to tell the difference between bone, joint and muscle injuries and administer the first aid:

  • A rupture is a complete tearing of a ligament, tendon or muscle.
  • Bruises are swelling, pain and bleeding below the skin, resulting from a direct blow to the area. Discoloration from bleeding under skin can last for days and change colors with time.
  • Hematomas arise when large amounts of blood collect under the skin as a result of tissue damage.
  • With open fractures, the broken bone comes through the skin.
  • With closed fractures, the skin over the broken bone remains intact. An x-ray is needed to determine if a fracture has occurred.
  • Sprains and strains are ligament and tendon injuries that occur more often than fractures.
  • Sprains occur at joints from a twisting injury which causes ligament(s) to partially or completely tear or overstretch. An x-ray may be needed to determine if a fracture or sprain exists. Treat as a fracture until confirmed.
  • Strains are a tearing or overstretching of a muscle. They typically occur near where muscle tapers into a tendon and connects to a bone.
Doc's First Aid Guide: Read It Before You Need It

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Doc's First Aid Guide: Read It Before You Need It

In a medical emergency, time is of the essence. "Doc's First Aid Guide" is an illustrated, first-aid pocket handbook designed to be used as a quick reference and includes the latest CPR guidelines....

Continue Learning about Bone & Joint Injuries

Bone & Joint Injuries

Bone & Joint Injuries

Often caused by falls, trauma, or injury, bone and joint injuries can sometimes be serious enough to require surgery. A broken bone can occasionally puncture your skin, causing intense pain. If you suspect that you have a broken b...

one, you will need medical treatment right away. In serious cases, pins, screws, and plates are placed into the body to stabilize the bone and help it heal. Joints connect our bones, and joint injuries can often occur in the elbows and knees. To reduce your risk of joint injury, stay healthy. Staying at a healthy weight and keeping your muscles strong and fit reduces the wear and tear on your joints.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.