The Difference Between Muscles, Tendons and Ligaments

Sep 5, 2022

There are many complex systems inside the human body, and we must understand how they work. We hear about injuries relating to our muscles, tendons and ligaments, but what’s the difference between the three? 

Muscles allow for movement, ligaments attach bones, and tendons connect muscle to bone. The differences may be subtle from outside the body, but once we understand them, it’s easy to prevent and treat injuries that impact them. Muscles are a separate group that don’t as often get mixed up. The confusion usually surrounds the ligament and tendon systems.

Read on to look at the difference between muscles, tendons and ligaments and the prevention of injuries. If you are struggling with a strain or want to know more, contact Atlas Chiropractic Body Clinic.

Our Muscles Functions

 Simply put, a muscle is the tissue that contracts to allow us to move. We have three main types of muscles: skeletal, cardiac and smooth muscles. Each has a different approach to the same goal – to get the body moving fluidly.

Skeletal Muscles

Our skeletal muscles are made up of two kinds of fibre that react in either a slow or a fast reaction. This reaction is referred to as a muscle twitch, and the speed is dependent on the length of time these muscles can contract. Slow-twitch fibre contracts over a longer period with lower force, and fast-twitch fibre contracts quickly with a higher level of power – making it more prone to injuries.

Cardiac Muscles

These muscles are found within your heart to control contractions that allow your heart to pump blood for circulation. Cardiac muscles use signals sent by peacemaker cells in your body to maintain the regularity and rhythm of the heart beating to keep the body functioning.

Smooth Muscles

Like the cardiac muscles, your smooth muscles control a vital system in your body – the digestive system. These make up the walls of your ‘hollow’ organs (stomach, intestines, bladder etc.), your respiratory systems and blood vessels. The contractions of these muscles move fluids and nutrients throughout the body.


What’s The Difference: Tendon vs Ligament

Moving away from muscles, we can now focus on tendons and ligaments. This is where people can get their wires crossed about which is which and their functions. While they bear similarities, such as being formed with collagen and having limited access to blood supplies, their purpose is where they differ.

Tendon Structures

Your tendons are the joining function between your muscles and bones. They are made up of fibres that run parallel to each other, providing support and elasticity to your movements. These structures can be quite fragile, so when you overwork or overstretch a tendon, you cause a strain. 

Tendon strains are most common in your leg, foot and back areas and can be caused by constant movement without allowing the body to recover. Cramping, weakness, swelling and pain are experienced due to a tendon strain.

Ligament Structures

The ligament structures connect your bones to other bones to connect movements throughout the body. Unlike tendons, ligaments intertwine to create a strong system that supports a flexible and stable bone structure. Overstretching or tearing ligaments results in a sprain that can happen from a fall, blow to the surrounding bones or an awkward movement/landing.

Ligament sprains are more common in the ankle, knee and wrist areas where your bone systems are more complex. When walking, something as simple as misstepping can cause the ankle bones to twist and snap a ligament. Hyperextension is another common risk of sprains, more so in the wrist area.

You may experience pain and swelling that can bruise the affected area, like tendon strains. Loose or weak joints that can’t bear wear (especially in the knee and ankle areas) result from a sprain.

Experiencing Acute Pain? Try This Injury Treatment

Injury treatment is entirely dependent on the severity and impacted system that has been injured. Knowing the difference between a tendon and ligament injury is much more complicated than identifying a muscle injury.

Whenever you experience pain and swelling, you should consult a doctor to create a treatment plan. In the meantime, you can soothe the immediate area by:  

  •  Icing: 20-minute intervals every few hours to reduce swelling and inflammation.
  • Rest: Use the affected area as little as possible to allow it to heal faster.
  • Elevate: When you elevate the injury above your heart, gravity can promote circulation that relieves pressure on the blood vessels and increases the drainage of any inflammation.
  • Compress: limit swelling, use compression bandages, and ensure the garment is secure without cutting off circulation.
  • Medications: anti-inflammatories and general pain medication can reduce the pain you feel and allow your body to heal without the discomfort.

Injuries aren’t preventable, but there are small changes we can make to our lifestyles to prevent the severity of these types of damages. The most important thing you can do is listen to your body when it’s tired or in pain, don’t push past your limits. The following checklist can help prepare your body for injury and lessen the pain experienced:  

  • Change up your routine to include both cardio and strength training.
  • Wear comfortable and supportive shoes when exercising.
  • Warm up and stretch before performing any type of physical activity.
  • Build your strength for any new activity – don’t stress/shock your muscles.
  • Include recovery into your routine.

We Know What They Are: What’s Next?

We have thousands of muscles, ligaments and tendons that connect our vital organs, systems and limbs to keep our body moving and functioning. It’s essential to take care of these delicate systems so we can function daily. Recognising when a muscle, ligament or tendon is injured is the first step to preventing significant injuries and continuing to enjoy a pain-free life.

Regardless of the injury, it’s essential to consult a medical professional to ensure the injury can heal properly without complications. If you are experiencing a sprain or strain that has resulted in pain, swelling or tenderness – contact Atlas Chiropractic Body Clinic for a thorough assessment and a tailored treatment plan.