What is a sprain?

A sprain occurs when a ligament (a band of tissue that connects two or more bones at a joint) is stretched and/or torn. During a sprain, one or more ligaments may be injured. The severity of the sprain depends on the number of ligaments injured and the extent of the injury (whether there is a partial or complete tear).

What causes a sprain?

A sprain is caused by either direct or indirect trauma that knocks the joint out of position and overstretches, sometimes rupturing the supporting ligaments. Examples of trauma include rolling of the ankle, a fall or a blow to the body.

Where do sprains occur?

Sprains occur in both the upper and lower parts of the body. However, the three most common sprain sites are the ankle, knee and wrist.

  • Ankle sprain— typically occurs when the foot turns inward as a person runs, turns or lands on the ankle after a jump.
  • Knee sprain— typically occurs after a blow to the knee or a fall. Sudden twisting of the knee may result in a sprain.
  • Wrist sprain —typically occurs when one falls and lands on an outstretched hand.

Who is at risk for sprains?

Both professional and amateur athletes— as well as the general public—can sustain this type of injury. However, those who have a history of sprains, are overweight and are in poor physical condition have increased risk.

What are the signs and symptoms of sprains?

Signs and symptoms may vary due to severity of injury. They may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation
  • Bruising
  • Instability
  • Loss of the ability to move and use the joint

When should I see a health care provider for a sprain?

  • You have severe pain and cannot put weight on the injured joint.
  • The injured area looks crooked, has lumps and bumps (other than swelling) that you do not see on the uninjured joint.
  • You cannot move the injured joint.
  • There is numbness in any part of the injured area.
  • Redness or red streaks spread out from the injury.
  • You injure an area that has been injured before.
  • You have pain, swelling or redness over a bony part of your foot.
  • You are in doubt about the seriousness of the injury and/or how to care for it.

How are sprains treated?

Health care providers advise patients to follow the rest, ice, compress and elevation (RICE) method for the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury.

  • Rest―Reduce regular exercises and activities of daily living. Your health care provider may advise you to not put weight on the injured area for 48 hours. You may need to use crutches.
  • Ice―Apply an ice pack to injured area for 20 minutes, four to eight times a day. You can use a cold pack, ice bag or plastic bag filled with ice wrapped in a towel. To avoid frost bite and cold injury, do not apply the ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Compression―Compression of the injured area my help reduce swelling. Elastic wraps, specialized boots, air casts and splints may be used as compression bandages. Ask your health care provider which would be the most appropriate to use. Also ask how tightly to apply the bandage safely.
  • Elevation―In order to help decrease swelling, keep the injured area elevated on a pillow above the level of your heart.

How can I help prevent sprains?

To help reduce the risk of sprains:

  • Avoid exercising or playing sports when tired or in pain.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and well- balanced diet to keep muscles strong.
  • Wear shoes that fit properly.
  • Practice safety measures to prevent falls.
  • Do stretching exercises daily.
  • Warm up and stretch before doing any physical activity.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 5/13/2014...#15461