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Medically reviewed by Last updated on May 27, 2022.

What is a sprain?

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

What are the signs and symptoms of a sprain?

You may hear or feel a pop or snap at the time of the sprain. You may also have any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Pain, tenderness, or swelling in your joint
  • Bruising
  • Trouble putting weight on or moving your joint

How is a sprain diagnosed?

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

  • An x-ray, CT scan or MRI may show the sprain or other damage. You may be given contrast liquid to help your injury show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Arthroscopy is a procedure to look inside your joint. Your healthcare provider makes a small incision in your joint and inserts 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 sprain treated?

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

  • A support device such as an elastic bandage, splint, brace, or cast may be needed. These devices limit movement and protect the joint. You may need to use crutches if the sprain is in your leg. This will help decrease your pain as you move around.
  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely. Some prescription pain medicines contain acetaminophen. Do not take other medicines that contain acetaminophen without talking to your healthcare provider. Too much acetaminophen may cause liver damage. Prescription pain medicine may cause constipation. Ask your healthcare provider how to prevent or treat constipation.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and 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 may be recommended by your healthcare provider. A physical therapist teaches you exercises to help improve movement and strength, and to decrease pain.
  • Surgery may be needed to repair or replace a torn ligament if your sprain does not heal with other treatments.

How can I manage a sprain?

  • Rest your joint so that it can heal. Return to normal activities as directed.
  • Apply ice on your injury for 15 to 20 minutes every hour or as directed. Use an ice pack, or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover the bag with a towel before you apply it. Ice helps prevent tissue damage and decreases swelling and pain.
  • Compress the injured area as directed. Ask your healthcare provider 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.
    How to Wrap an Elastic Bandage
  • Elevate the injured area above the level of your heart as often as you can. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Prop the injured area on pillows or blankets to keep it elevated comfortably.

How can I prevent another sprain?

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 healthcare provider about the activities you can do. Find out how long your ligament needs to heal. Do not do any physical activity until your healthcare provider says it is okay. If you start activity too soon, you may develop a more serious injury.
  • Always warm up and stretch before exercise, sport, or physical activity.
  • Go slowly. 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 seek immediate care?

  • You have numbness or tingling below the injury, such as in your fingers or toes.
  • The skin over your sprained area is blue or pale.
  • Your pain has increased or returned, even after you take pain medicine.

When should I call my doctor?

  • Your symptoms do not better.
  • Your swelling has increased or returned.
  • Your joint becomes more weak or unstable.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

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 healthcare providers 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.

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Further information

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