What Are Sprains?

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments around your joints. Ligaments are tissues that connect bones to other bones. Sprains occur when these ligaments tear or stretch.

Certain parts of your body—such as your ankles, wrists, thumbs, and knees—are more susceptible to sprains. These are common injuries and can be triggered by different activities. Walking or exercising on an uneven surface can cause an ankle sprain. Your thumb or knee can also be sprained while playing sports like tennis and basketball.

Anyone can sprain a ligament. However, certain factors increase your risk of injury. You are more likely to sprain something if you do not warm up before participating in physical activity or if you are already fatigued when you begin exercising. When your muscles are tired, your joints do not receive adequate support.

Be sure to get plenty of rest and stretch before exercising or playing sports to help prevent sprains.

Symptoms of a Sprain

If you are injured after a fall or while playing sports, you may not immediately recognize the signs of a sprain. Symptoms can vary and they range from mild to severe. They typically include:

  • swelling
  • bruising
  • trouble moving the affected joint
  • pain

Some sprains are mild and do not require medical treatment. However, you should visit your doctor if you are unable to move the injured joint, or if you experience numbness and intense pain while walking. Only your doctor can determine if your symptoms are caused by a simple sprain or a bone fracture.

You should also see a doctor if:

  • the joint appears dislocated
  • you suspect a broken bone
  • the swelling lasts longer than 48 hours
  • your pain does not improve after a few weeks
  • you have redness, painful skin, and a fever over 100 degrees F (this may indicate an infection)

Diagnosing a Sprain

If you experience severe symptoms and visit a doctor, he or she will perform a physical examination and run tests to confirm a sprain. Your doctor may check your injury for signs of swelling and move the affected joint to pinpoint the injury. He or she may also be able to diagnose a sprain just based on the physical examination.

If additional tests are needed, your doctor may order an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These are diagnostic tools that create images of your body. An X-ray uses electromagnetic radiation to produce images, which can show bone fractures or other bone injuries. An MRI uses radio waves and a powerful magnet to create images of soft tissues that help to determine the severity of your injury.

Treatment for a Sprain

Treatment options for sprains depend on your injury. Prescription medications are not usually necessary for mild sprains. You can treat these injuries yourself with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen. Always read the medication’s packaging and follow the dosage guidelines listed.

You may also want to:

  • apply an ice compress to the affected joint to reduce swelling and inflammation
  • wrap a bandage around the injury to stabilize the affected joint and prevent movement
  • elevate the affected joint to a point above your heart to reduce swelling

Try to rest the affected joint until the pain reduces or goes away. You should limit walking if you sprain your ankle or knee. If your pain is severe, your doctor may recommend that you use crutches.

Depending on the severity of your sprain, your doctor may also suggest physical therapy to help regain strength and mobility in the area. In severe cases, you will need surgery if you tear your ligaments or rupture your muscles.

Complications of a Sprain

You can prevent long-term problems by resting the affected joint and allowing the ligaments to fully heal. Complications can occur if a sprain is not treated properly or if you resume any strenuous activities too soon after the injury. This can lead to chronic pain or early onset arthritis in the affected joint.

Long-Term Outlook for a Sprain

A mild sprain can heal in 10 days. Moderate or severe sprains may require more time.

If you have experienced a sprain in the past, you are more likely to injure yourself again. You should firmly wrap a protective bandage around your ankle, wrist, or knee before doing any strenuous activity. This will support your joints and protect them from another injury.