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Overview of Sprains

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Dec 2018| Content last modified Dec 2018
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What is a sprain?

A sprain is a tear in one of your ligaments. Ligaments are short, tough bands of tissue that hold your bones together at a joint.

A sprain is mild, moderate, or severe based on whether your ligament is stretched, partly torn, or fully torn. A torn muscle or tendon isn't considered a sprain.

Sprains:

  • Cause pain and swelling

  • Don't show up on x-rays, but doctors may do x-rays to look for a nearby broken bone

  • Are treated by Protecting the area, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation ("PRICE")

  • Sometimes require a splint or cast

  • Usually heal on their own

  • May require surgery if the ligament is completely torn

What causes sprains?

You get a sprain if a joint is twisted, stretched, or bent too far, such as from:

  • A sports injury

  • Falling

Each joint has several ligaments. Sometimes more than one is sprained.

If a ligament is completely torn, the bones in the joint may separate. This is called a dislocation. Even without a dislocation, the joint may be wobbly. This is called an unstable joint.

What are the symptoms of sprains?

The most common symptoms are:

  • Pain—it hurts to touch, put weight on the body part, or use it

  • Swelling

  • Trouble using the injured part normally

The torn ligament can bleed under your skin. You may have a bruise after a day or so.

How can doctors tell if I have a sprain?

Doctors examine your injured joint and the areas near it. They may gently move the joint to see if it's working correctly and how badly it's hurt.

If doctors suspect a bone is broken or out of place, they’ll do an:

Because sprains don't show up on x-rays, doctors don't always do x-rays. If doctors need to see how badly a ligament is injured, they may do an MRI.

How do doctors treat sprains?

In the first 24 hours after a sprain, doctors have you do a treatment called PRICE, which stands for:

  • Protect the injury with a compression bandage or splint

  • Rest your injured body part by limiting activity or not putting weight on it (for example, by using crutches)

  • Ice the injured area with an ice pack wrapped in a towel

  • Compress (wrap) the area with an elastic bandage to limit swelling

  • Elevate the injured body part as high as your heart, or higher, to reduce swelling

To lessen pain, doctors will tell you to:

  • Take acetaminophen or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen

  • Apply ice every few hours for 15 or 20 minutes at a time

  • After 2 days, use a heating pad for 15 to 20 minutes at a time

Talk to your doctor about when you can start moving the body part:

  • If you have a mild sprain, doctors may tell you to start moving the sprained body part as soon as you can

  • If you have a moderate sprain, you may need a splint or sling for a few days

  • A severe sprain may need a cast or surgery

After a severe sprain, you may need to do rehab exercises. The exercises help strengthen the muscles around your joint and make it less stiff.

What are the complications of sprains?

  • Your joint may be stiff, especially if you had to wear a splint or cast

  • Your joint may be more likely to have another sprain even after this one heals

  • The joint may not be stable

The longer you wear a splint or cast, the stiffer your joint will be and the weaker your muscles. Then it will be harder for you to get your strength and flexibility back. Your joint may always be a little stiff and more likely to sprain if you hurt it again.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
TYLENOL
ADVIL, MOTRIN IB
NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
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