A sprain is an injury to the ligaments keeping a joint together

What is a sprain?

A sprain occurs when one or more ligaments in a joint are injured. This damage takes the form of over-stretching or, if more severe, tearing of small fibres in the ligament. In severe injuries, ligaments can be completely ruptured – in which case, it is no longer described as mundanely as a sprain!

Sprains can occur in any joint in the body but the most common joint affected is the ankle, followed by sprains to the wrist. Injury to joints can also damage surrounding muscles (known as a muscle strain) and it is for this reason that the terms sprains and strains are sometimes used together.

Causes of sprains

A sprain occurs when a joint bends more than it is designed to do as a result of excessive force. This extra movement stretches the ligaments to their limit, causing damage by either over-stretching or tearing the internal structure of the ligaments

  • Sprains to the ankle often arise when one ‘goes over the ankle’, following a fall or a simple trip on the pavement. See the next section for more detail on ankle sprains
  • Sprains to the knee are often associated with sporting injuries
  • Sprains to the wrist may result from over-use or repeated movements – for example, using a hammer during a DIY weekend.

People more prone to sprains

Some people are more prone to developing injuries to their joints for a variety of reasons – all of which give rise to a weak joint:

  • Weakness in muscles and tendons which surround the joint
  • Weak or loose ligaments keeping a joint together
  • Some people are born with weak joints due to a combination of weakness in muscles and ligaments
  • Some forms of footwear can make you more prone to ankle sprains – eg. high-heeled shoes

Symptoms of sprains

Typical symptoms of sprains in any part of the body are:

  • Pain, usually on one side of the joint more than the other
  • Limitation or restriction of movement in the joint
  • Swelling
  • Bruising

Severe swelling, or abnormal movement of the joint together with deformity of the injured area may indicate that the injury is severe, and not merely a sprain. If you notice these symptoms or if you have severe uncontrolled pain, seek medical help immediately.

Treatment of sprains

Sprains are best treated as soon as possible after the injury. Immediate action can reduce pain and other symptoms as well as help recovery.

  • Rest and stop the activity which has caused the injury
  • Use a cold compress to the painful parts of the joint
  • If possible, elevate the affected part of body

A packet of frozen peas can be used as a cold compress if nothing else is available. Continuing this treatment for 48 hours after injury can help recovery. Pain-killers (either taken by mouth or in the form of creams or gels) can be used to control pain and inflammation.

Some herbal remedies can provide pain relief following joint sprains – both in the acute and recovery phases. It can also help resolve bruising which is common with such injuries.