What is the Difference Between a Muscle and a Ligament?

Muscles are active structures made up of contractile tissue which contract and relax to produce movement. Ligaments are passive structures made up of connective tissue which link across joints to provide stability.
Written by Scott Gentle
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 10, 2022
Contributed by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne

Illustration of the difference between a muscle and a ligament

Muscles and ligaments have entirely different roles and functions in the human body. Muscles are important structures in the body that produce force and movement. On the other hand, the ligaments’ primary function is to stabilise the joints by absorbing forces.

Both muscles and ligaments work closely together to help protect and control the joints. By sensing forces that shift across the ligament, they can prompt muscles to activate across the joint. In terms of injuries, ligaments will mostly sprain or tear. While muscles face a larger range of injuries.

Injuries that affect muscles

  • Muscle tears and strains (grade I and grade II)

  • Grade III strains or complete ruptures

  • Contusions or ‘corkies’

  • Compartment syndrome

  • Laceration or deep cuts

  • Radiculopathies or referred nerve pain.

Injuries that affect ligaments

  • Sprains, tears or ruptures to the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL)

  • Ankle’s lateral and medial ligaments

  • Ligaments around the thumb and fingers

  • Elbow’s ulnar and radial collateral ligaments

  • Ligaments of the sacroiliac joint

  • Long ligaments that span along the spine

How to tell if your pain is caused by a muscle or ligament injury?

It can be difficult to self-diagnose whether your pain is caused by an injury to a muscle or a ligament because of their similar locations and causes. However, the table below will outline ways to tell if your pain is caused by a muscle or ligament injury.

Ligament InjuriesMuscle Injuries
OnsetUsually immediatelyUsually immediately but can be gradual (e.g. compartment syndrome, referred pain, etc.)
CausesSudden and unexpected movements that lead to overstretching of the joints (e.g. changing directions, rolling the ankle, etc.)Sudden and unexpected movements that load the muscle - especially during high intensity (e.g. jumping, sprinting, etc.)
A brief moment of joint instability due to traumaDirect trauma onto the muscle (e.g. contusions, compartment syndrome, etc.)
Ligament injuries typically do not happen over timeSymptoms and pain that build up over time (e.g. compartment syndrome, referred pain, etc.)
SymptomsA large degree of immediate swelling and bruisingBruising and swelling can occur in injuries, such as strain and contusion injuries. However, they may be absent in other types of injuries, such as referred pain
Pain around the joints during movementFeeling of weakness through the muscle during movement
Feeling of unsteadiness or looseness through the jointPain in the muscle during movement

There are several options when it comes to diagnosing tendon and ligament injuries. The most common approach is to be assessed by a qualified physiotherapist.

If you are suffering from any pain or injury, it is crucial to get help early to avoid further problems.

5 tips if you’ve recently injured a muscle or ligament (recommended by a physiotherapist)

  1. Ice can be applied during the first 24-48 hours to help with pain and swelling.

  2. Elevating the injured area above chest height to minimise swelling and bruising (if there is any at all).

  3. Compression over the injured area to provide support, comfort and reduce swelling.

  4. Resting or reduced movement from the injured area to encourage recovery.

  5. After 48-72 hours, gentle movements should be commenced to prevent deconditioning and promote recovery.


Muscles and ligaments are different structures with defined roles in the body. As a result, the outlook of injuries to these structures will vary. While the recovery timeline will depend on injury severity, ligaments will generally take longer as they possess poorer blood flow. Speed up your recovery by consulting a physiotherapist who understands the nuanced approaches to rehabilitation between the two.

Written by Scott Gentle
Physiotherapist, University of Queensland
Published on March 10, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 10, 2022
Contributed by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on March 10, 2022
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