Sprains are injuries where a ligament is stretched or torn within a joint. Common places you might have a sprain can include your ankle, knee and wrist. In severe sprains, the ligaments can be partially or completely torn – sometimes leading to surgery. Treatment for sprains often involves rest and physical therapy.
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.
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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.
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:
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:
Signs and symptoms may vary due to severity of injury. They may include:
A sprain can be diagnosed in several ways, including:
Yes, similar to other injuries, there are different degrees of severity with sprains. The degrees are determined by how badly the ligaments in the ankle or wrist are injured.
Your healthcare provider will advise you to follow the PRICE method for the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. PRICE stands for:
Depending on the joint involved and severity of sprain, sometimes surgery is needed to treat a sprain. If a surgery consult is recommended, they will evaluate the injury, the potential to heal both with and without surgery and make recommendations for the best recovery based on your age, activity level and risk factors involved with surgery.
Often, physical therapy is recommended after suffering a sprain. This kind of injury can take time to heal and may change the dynamics of the joint. The degree of sprain will determine the steps you will need to take in the recovery process. A physical therapist will work with you to regain strength and mobility in your joint. The therapist will teach you exercises, as well as give you a home exercise program, to prevent the injured joint from becoming stiff. Exercises to build strength and balance (in ankle and knee sprains) will be increased over time until you are back at a pre-injury level of activity. Your physical therapy can help with a return to exercise, sports programs and get the affected joint even stronger than it was to begin with. If you have suffered repeated sprains (such as an ankle sprain) or were immobilized for a while as the area healed (like in a boot or cast), physical therapy will be strongly recommended to reduce the chance of getting injured again.
Though sprains can happen to anyone, there are a few ways you can reduce the risk of a sprain. These tips include:
The length of your recovery from a sprain will depend on the severity of your injury. In mild sprains, your recovery may only be a few short weeks. In more severe sprains, it could take up 12 weeks to recover. Surgical repairs of completely torn ligaments will have the longest recovery, the healing and post-operative plan for return to activities would be outlined by your surgeon if you had surgery. Talk to your healthcare provider about the severity of your sprain and a timeline for your recovery.
You should see your healthcare provider if:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
As we move around each day and do our normal activities, there’s always a risk of tripping, falling and getting injured. If you experience a sprain, reach to your healthcare provider. It’s usually a good idea to make sure it’s only a sprain and not a more severe injury. You can also get a treatment plan that will get you up and moving again.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/28/2020.
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