What is a sprain – and what helps?

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
A sprain is a stretch or tear of the ligament in a joint (the strong bonds that connect bones together) and can be very painful. Here, we explain how to know if your injury is a sprain and how best to manage it

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We’ve all felt that horrible feeling when a joint feels like it’s jolted or jarred out of place. Whether you’ve hurt yourself running, playing sport or falling over, it can be hard to know if the pain is caused by a sprain, a strain or even a fracture.

Knowing what to do if you or someone else is injured can help to ease the pain and start the healing process. The best way to treat minor sprains is to follow the RICE method – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevate.

What is a sprain and what causes it?

A sprain is a common injury that happens when you stretch or tear a ligament (the strong elastic band of tissue that connects the end of one bone to another in a joint).

It happens usually as a result of sudden movement to the affected joint out of its normal range of movement. This leads to a stretch or tear of the ligament. Ankle, wrist, knee and thumb sprains are the most common.

What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?

Though their symptoms are quite similar, the main difference between a sprain and strain is that a strain tends to affect the muscle, while a sprain affects the ligaments.

A strain happens when you stretch or tear a muscle or tendon (the strong tissue that attaches muscle to bone). It’s usually caused by stretching the affected muscle beyond its normal range of movement. Foot, hamstring and back strains are the most common.

Stretch or tear of a ligamentStretch or tear of a muscle or tendon
Commonly affects the ankles, wrists, knees and thumbsCommonly affects the feet, hamstring and back

What are the symptoms of a sprain?

If you have a sprain, you’ll likely experience these symptoms in the affected area:

  • Pain or tenderness around the joint
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Reduced function or movement of the joint
  • Pain when you put weight on the joint
  • Joint instability (the feeling that the joint is about to give way) or weakness

What are the most common types of sprain?

Sprained ankle

A sprained ankle can be caused by landing awkwardly on your feet after jumping or twisting your ankle as a result of a fall or during exercise. It can also happen when you experience direct trauma to your ankle – for example, someone stepping on your ankle when playing a team sport.

Key symptoms of a sprained ankle:

  • Swelling of your ankle
  • Pain and tenderness in your ankle
  • Difficulty putting weight on your feet or walking

Sprained wrist

A sprained wrist is caused by an impact to the wrist that forces it to move out of its normal range of movement. This can happen when you put your arms out to brace for a fall, during a car accident or when playing a sport.

Key symptoms of a sprained wrist:

  • Swelling of your wrist
  • Pain and tenderness in your wrist
  • Numbness or tingling in your wrist
  • An inability to move or use your wrist normally

Sprained knee

A sprained knee can be caused by any movement that stretches the ligaments in the knee. This can include a sudden twisting of the knee joint, falling on your knees or a sudden collision or trauma to your knee in an accident or while playing a sport.

Key symptoms of a sprained knee:

  • Swelling of your knee
  • Pain and tenderness in your knee
  • Bruising of your knee joint
  • Stiffness or instability of the knee
  • Difficulty putting weight on your knee

How do I treat a sprain?

The first thing to do if you think you have a sprain is to perform RICE therapy. This is a simple 4-step process that helps to reduce any swelling:

  1. Rest – stop any activity or exercise that uses the joint and avoid putting any weight on it
  2. Ice – place an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel) on the affected joint for about 20 minutes every 2-3 hours
  3. Compression – wrap the joint with a bandage or compression sleeve to provide more support
  4. Elevate – keep the joint raised as often as possible – for example, using a pillow in bed

In the first few days of RICE therapy, try to avoid heat from heat packs or hot showers and baths. This will prevent any more swelling.

When you’re able to move the joint without a lot of pain, do your best to keep moving it to prevent it from stiffening.

As well as following the RICE method, you can also take some over-the-counter painkillers to help relieve pain and tenderness in the joint. Paracetamol is a good first option to try to manage the pain. You could also use ibuprofen gel, cream or spray on the joint to manage the pain and swelling

Are there any red flags to look out for with a sprain?

There are some symptoms to look out for that might suggest you need to seek medical help. If you experience any of these symptoms, call 111 to seek further help:

  • A red, hot and swollen joint
  • It’s tender when you touch either the maeloli (the bony bumps either side of your ankle) or around the foot area
  • A very unstable joint
  • Numbness in the area
  • Misalignment or asymmetry in the joint
  • You can not walk 4 steps at the time of the injury and following
  • You heard a ‘crack’ or ‘pop’ when the injury occurred
  • You think you’ve broken a bone

How long will it take for a sprain to heal?

This can vary depending on the severity of the sprain. Most sprains tend to improve after 2 weeks and get back to normal after 12 weeks, but a more severe sprain can take a few months to heal completely.

How can I prevent a sprain?

There are some simple things you can do to prevent a sprain in the future:

  • Always warm up before and cool down after intense exercise
  • Use protective braces or sleeves to support the joints
  • Maintain a healthy weight and keep your muscles strong
  • Use appropriate equipment and wear supportive shoes when exercising or playing sport

When should I speak to a doctor?

You should speak to a doctor if your symptoms haven’t improved after a few weeks or if you experience any of the red flag symptoms included above.

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi.

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