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How to manage a sprain

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

A sprain is one of the most common sports injuries. It is the result of overstretching or tearing a ligament in one of your joints. Sprains commonly occur during physical activity or while trying to break your fall (a common cause of wrist sprain).

The most common sprains are in the ankles and wrists, as they are highly flexible joints that can move in complex motions, and are frequently put under a lot of stress. A simple sprain, albeit painful, is very easy to treat, and usually only needs rest and very gentle exercise for a number of weeks to months. The severity of a sprain is categorized based on a grading system.

Grade one is a small tear in the ligament, grade two describes a large but incomplete tear, and grade 3 describes a complete tear. There are things you can do at home to speed up recovery and ensure the joint will fully heal, and we'll discuss that in a bit more detail later on.

Symptoms of a sprain

Normally you will know immediately if you have sprained your ankle or wrist, as the injury usually occurs when you roll the joint too far in one direction. The main symptoms are:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Limited ability to move the affected joint
  • Hearing or feeling a "pop" in your joint at the time of injury

First steps for home treatment:

If you suspect you have sprained a joint, you should follow the RICE or PRICE acronym.

P – Protection. This is to prevent further injury, which can be done by avoiding using the affected joint initially.

R – Rest. This is important to allow recovery; however, a more accurate term is "relevant rest" which describes rest that allows healing but does not restrict recovery. The joint should be gently exercised using pain-free range-of-motion exercises.

I – Ice. This is to reduce swelling and inflammation in the area, which can, in turn, reduce pain. It is important not to put ice directly onto the area. Instead, wrap it in something such as a towel and only apply it for 10-15 minutes at a time with 1-2 hour breaks between applications.

C – Compression. You should apply a compression wrap or elasticized bandage to the area. This gently compresses the area to reduce swelling and provides mild support.

E – Elevation. This is to prevent the pooling of fluid in the injured area, which can reduce pain and reduce loss in motion while the area recovers. The elevation is accomplished by positioning the injured area above the level of the heart. Elevation during most of the waking hours, if possible, and positioning the injured limb on extra pillows for sleep is probably most effective in the initial 24 to 48 hours. If there is significant swelling that continues after 24 to 48 hours, or if swelling recurs during recovery, then continued periodic elevation is appropriate.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

The best way to manage the pain from a sprain is with over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, which are most effective in combination. As well as the pain relief effect, ibuprofen also has anti-inflammatory properties that will help reduce some of the swelling and inflammation in the joint.

When should I see my doctor?

Mild sprains can be treated at home, but if you have severe symptoms, you may need a review with your doctor to rule out a bony injury. You should see a doctor if you can't move or bear weight on the affected joint, if you have severe pain, if there is any deformity to the joint, or if you have ongoing numbness to any part of the injured area. Your doctor may decide to arrange an X-ray to check that there are no breaks to the bones in the area.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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