Ligament Sprain

What is a ligament sprain?

A ligament sprain happens when a ligament is stretched or torn. Ligaments are tough tissues that connect bones. Ligaments support your joints and keep your bones in place. They allow you to lift, lower, or rotate your arms and legs. A ligament sprain may involve one or more ligaments.

What causes a ligament sprain?

A sprain is usually caused by a direct injury or sudden twisting of the joint. This may happen while playing sports, or may be due to a fall or car accident. The following may increase your risk of a ligament sprain:

  • Overuse of your muscles or muscle fatigue (tiredness)

  • A sudden increase in the amount and intensity of sports training

  • Wearing shoes that do not fit or are not well-suited for the activity

  • Weighing at least 20 pounds more than your caregiver recommends

  • Using sports equipment the wrong way

What are the signs and symptoms of a ligament sprain?

  • You hear or feel a pop or snap at the time of the sprain.

  • The joint gives way, especially during heavy physical activity. This may occur if a joint in the lower arm or leg is affected.

  • You have sudden pain or swelling in the joint. The pain is often worse when you touch the affected area.

  • The injured area may be bruised and feel warm when touched.

  • You have trouble moving the joint.

How is a ligament sprain diagnosed?

Your caregiver will ask you about your injury and examine you. Tell him if you heard a snap or pop when you were injured. Your caregiver will check the movement and strength of your joint. You may be asked to move the joint yourself. You may also need the following:

  • Joint x-ray: This is a picture of the bones and tissues in your joints. A joint x-ray will show your caregiver if there is a fracture caused by the injury. You may be given dye as a shot into your joint before the x-ray. This dye will help your joint show up better on the x-ray. A joint x-ray with dye is called an arthrogram.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray and computer are used to take pictures of your joint area. It may be used to look for injured bones or muscles. You may be given dye, also called contrast, before the test. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to dye, iodine, or seafood.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your joint. An MRI is used to look for ligament tears or other injuries. You may be given dye, also called contrast, before the test. Tell caregivers if you are allergic to dye, iodine, or seafood. Remove all jewelry, and tell caregivers if you have any metal in or on your body. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell caregivers if you cannot lie still or are anxious or afraid of closed spaces.

  • Arthroscopy: If the ligament sprain is in your knee, your caregiver may use arthroscopy to look inside your knee for signs of injury. He will make a small incision in your knee and insert a scope through it. The scope is a long tube with a magnifying glass, a camera, and a light on the end.

How is a ligament sprain treated?

Treatment depends on which ligament was injured and if more than one are affected. Treatment may also depend on how severe your injury is and when the injury occurred. You may need any of the following:

  • Support devices: You may need an elastic bandage, splint, brace, or cast to limit your movement and protect your joint. You may need to use crutches if your ligament sprain is in your leg. This will help decrease your pain as you move around.

  • Medicines:

    • Pain medicine: You may be given a doctor's order for medicine to take away or decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.

    • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain or fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.

  • Physical therapy: You may need to see a physical therapist to teach you special exercises. These exercises help improve movement and decrease pain. Physical therapy can also help improve strength and decrease your risk for loss of function.

What are the risks of a ligament sprain?

Splints, braces, and casts can cause discomfort and limit your usual activities. Even with treatment, the joint may not be the same as it was before your injury. Without treatment, a sprain may cause weakness of your joint or problems with movement. Your symptoms may worsen over time. Your ligament can tear and cause severe pain.

How can I manage my ligament sprain?

  • Rest: Rest your joint so that it can heal. Return to normal activities as directed.

  • Ice: Ice helps decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover the ice pack with a towel and place it on your injured ligament for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. Use the ice for as long as directed.

  • Compress: Ask your caregiver if you should wrap an elastic bandage around your injured ligament. An elastic bandage provides support and helps decrease swelling and movement so your joint can heal.

  • Elevate: Keep your injured area raised above the level of your heart as often as you can. This will help decrease or limit swelling. Elevate the injured area by resting it on pillows.

How can another ligament sprain be prevented?

Regular exercise can strengthen your muscles and help prevent another injury. Do the following before you begin or return to regular exercise or sports training:

  • Ask your caregiver: Find out how long your ligament needs to heal. Do not do any physical activity until your caregiver says it is okay. If you start activity too soon, you may develop a more serious injury.

  • Always warm up: Always warm up and stretch before your regular exercise, sport, or physical activity.

  • Take it slow: Slowly increase how often and how long you exercise or train. Sudden increases in how often you train may cause you to overstretch or tear your ligament.

  • Use the right equipment: Always wear shoes that fit well and are made for the activity that you are doing. You may also use ankle supports, elbow and knee pads, or braces.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You have questions or concerns about condition or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek help immediately or call 911 if:

  • The area below the injury, such as fingers or toes, are cold or numb.

  • Your joint becomes more weak or unstable (wobbly).

  • Your pain has increased or returned, even after taking pain medicine.

  • Your swelling has increased or returned.

  • Your symptoms are not getting better.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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