Ligaments are like elastic bands that hold bones together at a joint. A sprain happens when a joint is twisted or pulled or unbalanced so badly that the ligaments that hold it together are stretched or torn.
Sprained ankles are fairly common. This type of sprain often occurs when you lose your balance, quickly twisting your ankle. A sprained elbow or forearm may happen when you fall or experience a blow to the elbow.
Symptoms of a Sprain
Typically, you'll feel a quickly fading pain soon after the injury. Other symptoms are:
- Swelling around the joint.
- Pain when moving or putting weight on the joint.
- A popping sound (from the ligaments being stretched or torn).
Causes and Risk Factors for a Sprain
Risk factors include playing sports, poor coordination and balance, poor flexibility, weakness in the surrounding muscles and ligaments or loose joints. Uneven ground or positions where your toes are on the ground and your heel is up put you at risk of spraining an ankle. A sudden force like landing on an uneven surface may turn your ankle inward (inversion).
Diagnosing a Sprain
Tell your doctor what you were doing when you hurt yourself. After your examination, an X-ray may be taken to check for broken bones. Your doctor may order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) if there is a suspicion a ligament has been torn.
Sprains are graded according to their severity:
- Grade I: Stretching and some minor tearing of ligament tissue
- Grade II: Partial tearing of ligament tissue with mild instability of the joint
- Grade III: Severe or complete tearing of ligament tissue with significant instability of the joint
Treating a Sprain
It is important to treat your sprain promptly and properly to avoid ongoing pain and instability of your joint.
If you have a Grade I sprain, follow the R.I.C.E. guidelines:
- Rest your joint by not using it.
- Ice it to keep the swelling down.
- Compressive bandages to support your joint and keep it from moving.
- Elevate your joint as much as possible (preferably above your heart level) for 48 hours.
The swelling usually goes down within a few days.
If you have a Grade II sprain, follow the R.I.C.E. guidelines but allow more time for healing. Your doctor may immobilize or splint your sprained joint.
If you have a Grade III sprain, follow the guidelines for Grades I and II but you may be at risk for permanent joint instability and weakness.
Surgery is rarely needed to repair the damage, especially in competitive athletes. For severe sprains, your doctor may consider putting you in a cast or a cast-brace for two to three weeks. People who repeatedly sprain an ankle or other joint may need surgery to tighten their ligaments or to repair tears.
Physical therapy may help you begin bearing weight or using the joint. Increasing your flexibility and range of motion and strengthening the supporting muscles around the joint may help you make a more complete recovery. The last phase is activity and exercises routines to strengthen the muscles and ligaments.