What is a sprain?

A sprain happens when a ligament is stretched or torn. A ligament is a strong, fibrous band of rope-like tissue that connects two or more bones at a joint. When you have a sprain, you may have injured one or more ligaments. A sprain is different from a strain, even though sometimes the terms can get used interchangeably. A strain is a stretch, pull or tear of where a muscle attaches to a bone. Think of it as a strain is muscle to bone and a sprain is bone to bone. When you have a sprain, it directly impacts the joint involved. The severity of a sprain can range from the ligament being stretched, partially torn or completely torn. How bad the injury is depends on both the degree of sprain and how many ligaments are involved.

Where do sprains occur?

You can have a sprain in any joint in the body but the most vulnerable spots include those at higher risk of injury from falls and trauma within both the upper and lower parts of the body. The three most common spots for sprains are the ankle, knee and wrist.

  • Ankle sprain: This type of sprain typically happens when the foot turns inward as you run, turn or land on the ankle after a jump.
  • Knee sprain: Typically, this occurs after a blow to the knee or a fall. Sudden twisting of the knee may result in a sprain.
  • Wrist sprain: This sprain often happens when you fall and land on an outstretched hand.

Who is at risk for sprains?

Anyone can be at risk for a sprain. A sprain can happen to both the young and old, as well as the athletic and those doing typical daily activities. You may be at an increased risk if:

  • You have a history of sprains
  • You are in poor physical condition or are overweight.
  • You participate in a lot of physical activity that happens on uneven surfaces.
  • You are fatigued — tired muscles are less likely to provide good support.

What causes a sprain?

A sprain is caused by either a direct or indirect injury (trauma) that knocks the joint out of position and overstretches, sometimes tearing the supporting ligaments. Examples of injuries that cause a sprain can include:

  • Rolling your ankle — either while running, changing direction or landing from a jump.
  • Falling or slipping on a wet surface or uneven ground.
  • Taking a blow to the body, including contact sports that cause a direct hit or a shift in balance and falls.

What are the signs and symptoms of sprains?

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

  • Pain.
  • Swelling, which can indicate underlying inflammation within the joint or within the soft tissue surrounding the joint.
  • Bruising.
  • Instability, especially noted on weight bearing joints like the knee or ankle.
  • Loss of the ability to move and use the joint.

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