Sprains are common injuries. They happen when ligaments around one of your joints are stretched or torn. Sport injuries and falls are the most common causes. You can usually manage your symptoms at home with the RICE method, but you should visit a healthcare provider to get any injury diagnosed.


Providers grade sprains from 1 to 3 based on how damaged your ligaments are.
Ankles are one of the most commonly sprained joints.

What is a sprain?

A sprain is an injury that happens when one of your ligaments is stretched or torn.

Ligaments are bands of tissue that connect bones throughout your body. They’re like ropes that hold your muscles and bones together and prevent them from moving too far. Ligaments also make sure your joints only move in the direction(s) they’re supposed to.

Sprains happen when ligaments around one of your joints are damaged. Visit a healthcare provider if you notice pain, swelling or it’s hard to use or put weight on a joint — especially if you’ve experienced a fall, injury or accident.

Types of sprains

Any joint supported by ligaments can be sprained. The most commonly sprained joints are:

How common are sprains?

Sprains are very common. They’re one of the most common injuries, especially among athletes.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are sprain symptoms?

The most common sprain symptoms include:

  • Pain.
  • Swelling.
  • Bruising or discoloration.
  • Instability (feeling like you can’t put weight on the joint or move comfortably).
  • Reduced range of motion (it’s hard or painful to move the joint as far as usual).

What causes sprains?

Anything that forces your joint to move too much or too far can cause a sprain. The most common causes include:

  • Sports injuries.
  • Falls.
  • Slipping and catching yourself suddenly.
  • Rolling an ankle or twisting a knee while walking, running or jumping.
  • Repetitive strain injuries (overusing a joint or performing a repetitive motion for work, a sport or a hobby).

What are the risk factors for sprains?

Anyone can experience a sprain, but some people are more likely to sprain a joint, including:

  • Athletes.
  • Workers with physically demanding jobs.
  • People who have a hobby or activity that makes them perform repetitive motions.

Exercise habits that can increase your injury risk (especially sprains) include:

  • Suddenly increasing your workout or activity intensity.
  • Starting a new sport or activity without the proper equipment or training (working out with poor form or wearing the wrong kind of shoes, for example).
  • Playing the same sport year-round with no offseason.


Diagnosis and Tests

How are sprains diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose a sprain with a physical exam. Your provider will examine your injured joint. Tell them when you first noticed symptoms, especially if you know exactly what caused the injury.

Healthcare providers grade sprains based on their severity:

  • Grade 1 sprain (mild): Very little or no tearing in your ligament.
  • Grade 2 sprain (moderate): Your ligament is partially torn, but not all the way through.
  • Grade 3 sprain (severe): Your ligament is completely torn.

What tests do providers use to diagnose sprains?

You might need imaging tests to take pictures of your joint and the tissue around it. These tests can show damage inside your joint and help diagnose other injuries like bone fractures. Your provider might use:

Management and Treatment

How are sprains treated?

After you see a provider for a diagnosis, you should be able to treat sprain symptoms at home by following the R.I.C.E. method:

  • Rest: Avoid the activity that caused your injury. Try not to use the injured part of your body while it heals.
  • Ice: Apply a cold compress to your injury 15 minutes at a time, a few times a day. Wrap ice packs in a towel or thin cloth so they’re not directly touching your skin.
  • Compression: Wrap an elastic bandage around your injured joint to help reduce swelling. Your provider can show you how to apply a compression wrap safely.
  • Elevation: Keep your joint above the level of your heart as often as you can.

Over-the-counter NSAIDs (aspirin or ibuprofen) or acetaminophen can reduce pain and inflammation. Talk to your provider before taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication for longer than 10 days.

Other treatments you may need include:

It’s rare to need surgery after a sprain. You may need surgery for a severe sprain or other injuries like a broken bone or dislocation. Some people need surgery if they’ve sprained the same joint multiple times.


How soon after treatment will I feel better?

You should start feeling better gradually after you start treating your symptoms. The most important part of healing after a sprain is to avoid using that joint or putting more stress on it. Ask your provider how much you can use your joint while you’re recovering.


How can I prevent sprains?

There might not be any way to prevent a sprain, especially if you’re an athlete.

During sports or other physical activities:

  • Wear the proper protective equipment.
  • Don’t “play through the pain” if something hurts during or after physical activity.
  • Give your body time to rest and recover after intense activity.
  • Stretch and warm up before playing sports or working out.
  • 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 from 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 your cane or walker if you have difficulty walking or have an increased risk of falls.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have a sprain?

You should expect to make a full recovery. Sprains are usually temporary injuries, and shouldn’t have a long-term impact on your health or ability to stay active.

Spraining a joint can make you more likely to injure it again in the future. Ask your provider about your unique risk and what you can do to prevent future sprains.

How long does it take to recover from a sprain?

Your sprain recovery time will depend on which joint is sprained and how severe it was. Most sprains take a few weeks to heal. More severe (grade 3) sprains can take a few months. Your healthcare provider will tell you what to expect.

Living With

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Visit a healthcare provider if you’ve experienced an injury and have sprain symptoms. Talk to your provider if you’ve started treating a sprain and your symptoms aren’t improving after a few days (or if they’re getting worse).

When should I go to the emergency room?

Go to the ER if you experience any of the following:

  • Extreme pain.
  • Swelling that’s getting worse.
  • Discoloration.
  • Numbness.

What questions should I ask my provider?

  • Do I have a sprain or another type of injury?
  • Which grade of sprain do I have?
  • Which treatments will I need?
  • When can I resume physical activity or play sports again?

Additional Common Questions

What are sprains vs. strains?

Sprains and strains are similar injuries — the difference is what’s damaged.

Sprains happen when a ligament is torn or damaged, usually when one of your joints moves further than it should.

Muscle strains happen when one of your muscles is torn. People also sometimes call strains pulled muscles or muscle tears. Providers sometimes call tendon tears strains.

Sprains and strains are both common sports injuries. Visit a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing pain, swelling and can’t move a joint or muscle as well as you usually can.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Almost everyone’s twisted an ankle, jammed a finger or had some kind of sprain in their lives. They’re one of the most common injuries. Even if most sprains aren’t serious and will heal with rest and at-home treatments, don’t ignore pain, swelling or instability in a joint. See a healthcare provider to get any injury diagnosed correctly, especially if it’s making it hard to use or move a joint.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 09/20/2023.

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