A sprain is an injury that damages a ligament. A ligament is a firm, fibrous band of tissue. It connects two bones across a joint. There are ligaments crossing all of the joints in the body.
Grade 1 and 2 sprains are less severe. The internal structure of the ligament is damaged, but the ligament remains intact. Grade 3 sprains are more severe. They include complete tears of the ligament. Grade 3 sprains are sometimes called torn or ruptured ligaments.
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
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your doctor may need images of your joint. This will help check for damage to bones or other structures. Images may be taken with:
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:
Avoid activity that causes pain. Protect the joint when possible.
Elevation will help decrease swelling.
Compression of the area with an elastic bandage also helps to control swelling. Do not pull the elastic bandage tight. Release the bandage if fingers or toes become numb.
Ice and Heat
Apply ice to the area for 15-20 minutes at a time. This may be required several times a day for the first few days. Do not apply heat until you are ready to start being more active. Check with your doctor before applying heat. It may increase swelling.
Place a towel between a heat or ice pack and your skin.
Your doctor may prescribe medication to manage pain and swelling. Medication may include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication, such as ibuprofen
- Over-the-counter or prescription medication that is applied to the skin
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: 09/2013 -
- Update Date: 09/30/2013 -