Sprains and Strains

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments around a joint. Ligaments are strong, flexible fibers that hold bones together. When a ligament is stretched too far or tears, the joint will become painful and swell.

A strain is an injury to a muscle from overuse or over-stretching.

Causes and symptoms

Sprains are caused when a joint is forced to move into an unnatural position. For example, "twisting" one's ankle causes a sprain to the ligaments around the ankle.

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • Joint pain or muscle pain
  • Swelling
  • Joint stiffness
  • Discoloration of the skin, especially bruising

First aid

  • Apply ice right away to reduce swelling. Wrap the ice in cloth. Do not place ice directly on the skin. Apply the ice for up to 20 minutes per hour.
  • Wrap a bandage around the affected area to limit movement. Wrap firmly, but not tightly. Use a splint if needed.
  • Keep the swollen joint raised above your heart, even while sleeping
  • Rest the affected joint for several days

Aspirin, ibuprofen, or other pain relievers can help. Do not give aspirin to children.

Keep pressure off the injured area until the pain goes away. Most of the time, a mild sprain will heal in seven to ten days. It may take several weeks for pain to go away after a bad sprain. Your health care provider may recommend crutches. Physical therapy can help you regain motion and strength of the injured area.
When to get medical assistance

Go to the hospital right away or call 911 if:

  • You think you have a broken bone
  • The joint appears out of position
  • You have a serious injury or severe pain
  • You hear a popping sound and have immediate problems using the joint

Call your health care provider if:

  • Swelling does not start to go away within 2 days
  • You have symptoms of infection, including red, warm, painful skin or a fever over 100°F
  • The pain does not go away after several weeks

Prevention

The following steps may lower your risk of a sprain:

  • Wear protective footwear during activities that place stress on your ankle and other joints
  • Make sure that shoes fit your feet properly
  • Avoid high-heeled shoes
  • Always warm-up and stretch before doing exercise and sports
  • Avoid sports and activities for which you have not trained

Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine: Sprains