A sprain is an injury that damages a ligament. A ligament is a firm, fibrous band of tissue. It connects 2 bones across a joint. There are ligaments crossing all of the joints in the body.
A sprain occurs when a force pushes the bones of a joint apart. If the force is intense enough, the ligament holding the joint together has to give.
Sprains can occur with everyday activities, but they are more common during sports. Sports with high speeds and risk of collision have an increased risk of sprains. These sports include:
Factors that may increase your risk of a sprain include:
- Muscle weakness
- Lack of flexibility
- Coordination and balance difficulties
- Sudden change in direction
- Impact with object or other person
- Misstep that causes a sudden strain at a joint
Symptoms of a sprain may include:
- Pain immediately after the sprain—without treatment, the pain becomes worse over the next 24 hours
- A popping sound
- Local swelling, often within minutes
- Trouble moving the joint
- Increased pain when putting pressure on the injured area
The most common joints involved include:
- Thumb or finger joints
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Images may be needed of your joint. This will help check for damage to bones or other structures. Images may be taken with:
Sprains are graded according to the amount of injury:
- Grade 1—Some stretching with micro-tearing of ligaments
- Grade 2—Partial tearing of ligaments
- Grade 3—Complete tearing of ligaments
Treatment will depend on the joint involved and the extent of the injury. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:
You will need time to heal, but strict rest is rarely necessary. For most, you should continue to move as long as it does not increase pain. Go about your normal activities as much as you can tolerate.
Elevation will help decrease swelling.
Compression of the area with an elastic bandage also helps to control swelling.
Ice and Heat
Ice may help decrease swelling and pain in the first few days after the injury.
After a couple of days, heat may help loosen tight or injured muscles. Wait for swelling to go away before using heat therapy.
Medication can help to relieve discomfort and swelling. Medications may include:
- Over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen
- Topical pain medication—creams or patches that are applied to the skin
- Prescription pain relievers
Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
Rehabilitation exercises may be helpful after the sprain heals. Exercises can help to strengthen muscles and increase range of motion. Medical help is often needed at this stage. It is important to strengthen the muscles involving the joint where the ligament is. Those muscles need protection against further injury.
It may be difficult to avoid sprains. Joints are at risk during athletic activities. To reduce your chance of getting a sprain:
- Use proper techniques to help avoid awkward motions and missteps
- Participate in flexibility, strength, and fitness training
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 06/2015 -
- Update Date: 09/30/2013 -