Sprained Wrist

Wrist sprains are common injuries that are usually caused by falls or sports injuries. You can usually treat a sprained wrist at home with rest, ice, compression and over-the-counter medicine. Visit a healthcare provider to make sure you didn’t damage the bones or other tissue in your wrist when you were hurt.


Illustration of sprained wrist ligament
A sprained wrist happens when something stretches your wrist ligaments enough to damage them.

What is a sprained wrist?

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments that hold your bones together. Ligaments are bands of tissue that help connect bones, joints and organs and hold them in place. They’re naturally very flexible and tough.

There are 20 ligaments in your wrist that support your eight wrist bones. A sprained wrist happens when something stretches your wrist ligaments enough to damage them. The scapholunate ligament that connects your scaphoid and lunate bones is the most commonly sprained ligament.

Most wrist sprains are minor injuries after your wrist ligaments are stretched further than their limit. More severe sprains happen when you tear a ligament.

Sprains are usually painful. It might be hard to move or use your affected wrist. You can treat most wrist sprains at home with rest, ice and over-the-counter (OTC) medicine.

Visit a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing wrist pain and other symptoms that don’t get better after a few days of at-home treatments.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of a sprained wrist?

The most common symptoms of a sprained wrist include:

What causes wrist sprains?

Anything that puts enough force to stretch or twist your wrist ligaments too far can cause a wrist sprain. The most common causes include:

  • Falls (especially catching yourself from a fall with outstretched hands).
  • Sports injuries.
  • Traumas like car accidents.

It’s much less common, but certain health conditions can put enough pressure on your wrist ligaments to stretch them and cause a sprain, including:


What are complications of a wrist sprain?

The most common complications are other injuries that happen when you sprain your wrist, including:

Diagnosis and Tests

How are wrist sprains diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose a sprained wrist with a physical exam. They’ll look at your wrist and ask you about your symptoms. Tell your provider what you were doing right before you injured your wrist and when you first noticed the pain.

Your provider might ask you to move your wrist to check your range of motion (how far you can move a joint). Tell them if that movement hurts or when it hurts most.

What tests are done to diagnose wrist sprains?

Your healthcare provider will probably use a wrist X-ray to take pictures of your injured wrist ligaments and check for damage to your bones.

You might also need magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan.

Wrist sprains with Terry Thomas sign

The Terry Thomas sign is a nickname for the extra space that opens between your wrist bones after some types of sprains. It’s named after British comic Terry Thomas because the gap in the wrist bones resembles the gap between Terry Thomas’ front teeth. Today, most people aren’t familiar with Terry Thomas. Instead, healthcare providers sometimes call it the David Letterman sign or Madonna sign.


Management and Treatment

How are wrist sprains treated?

You can usually treat a sprained wrist at home. Don’t play sports or do any activity that can put more stress on your wrist. Over-the-counter pain medicine like NSAIDs or acetaminophen can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Talk to a healthcare provider before taking pain relievers for more than 10 days in a row.

Follow the RICE method as soon as you notice pain or other symptoms:

  • Rest: Avoid the activity that caused your injury. Don’t overuse your wrist while it heals.
  • Ice: Apply a cold compress or ice packs wrapped in a thin towel to your wrist for 15 minutes at a time, a few times a day.
  • Compression: You can wrap your wrist in an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling. Don’t wrap your wrist so tightly it hurts or cuts off circulation to your hand and fingers.
  • Elevation: Prop your wrist and arm up above the level of your heart as often as you can.

Visit a healthcare provider if your symptoms don’t start getting better a few days after starting at-home treatments.

Your provider might suggest you wear a brace or splint on your affected wrist. This is called immobilization and will hold your wrist in a neutral position while it heals. Ask your provider how often you should wear a brace or splint, and how long you’ll need to wear it.

Wrist sprain surgery

It’s rare to need surgery for a sprained wrist. But if the fall or accident that sprained your wrist caused other injuries, you might need surgery to repair the damage.

Surgery may involve a minimally invasive procedure called arthroscopy. Your surgeon will make a small incision (cut) and insert a small camera (arthroscope) to look at your bones and ligaments. They’ll insert tiny instruments to repair the wrist joint and its ligaments.

More severe injuries may require open surgery. In this case, your surgeon will make a cut in the back of your wrist. They’ll set your bones (place them into their correct position) and repair your damaged ligaments.

How long does it take to recover from a wrist sprain?

It usually takes a few weeks to recover from a sprained wrist. Your symptoms like pain and swelling should improve as soon as you start treatment.


How can I prevent wrist sprains?

During sports or other physical activities:

  • Warm up before playing sports or working out.
  • Wear the proper protective equipment.
  • Don’t “play through the pain” if your wrist hurts during or after physical activity.
  • Give your body time to rest and recover after intense activity.
  • Cool down and stretch after physical activity.

Follow these general safety tips to reduce your risk of an injury:

  • Make sure your home and workspace are free of clutter that could trip you or others.
  • Always use the proper tools or equipment at home to reach things. Never stand on chairs, tables or countertops.
  • Use a cane or walker if you have difficulty walking or have an increased risk for falls.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have a sprained wrist?

You should expect to make a full recovery after a sprained wrist. Most sprains are temporary injuries, and you should be able to return to all your usual activities as soon as your ligaments have healed.

Talk to your provider before resuming physical activities or playing sports. If you put too much stress on your wrist before it’s healed, you can reinjure it and have a higher risk of complications and other injuries.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Visit a healthcare provider if you fall or experience any type of injury that leads to wrist pain — especially if your symptoms don’t get better in a few days.

Go to the emergency room if you experience trauma or think you have a broken bone.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • Do I have a sprain or another injury?
  • Which treatments will I need?
  • Will I need to immobilize my wrist? For how long?
  • Will I need surgery?
  • When can I resume physical activity or play sports again?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Wrist sprains are one of the most common injuries people experience. But a sprain is still frustrating and painful. Visit a healthcare provider as soon as you notice pain or swelling in your wrist — especially if you fell or hurt it playing sports. Your provider will diagnose your injury and suggest treatments that’ll get you back to your usual activities as soon as possible.

Don’t rush your recovery. Your body needs time to heal. Ask your provider when you can resume physical activities or playing sports. It might be annoying to miss a few weeks of games, practices or other activities, but it’s worth it.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 12/20/2022.

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