Sprain injuries are like common colds: we all get them, and we all have an opinion on how to take care of them. But sometimes we need a fact-based, medical refresher on how to properly treat a sprain. And yes, we’ve got a pretty definitive answer to the ice vs. heat argument!
What Is A Sprain?
A sprain is an injury to a ligament, the tissue that connects two or more bones to a joint. When the joint is forced out of its normal position and that ligament gets torn or stretched, that’s a sprain.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Sprain?
The main symptoms of a sprain include swelling, bruising, pain in the joint and, in more severe cases, the inability to move the joint. Doctors classify sprains as mild, moderate or severe, ranging from a mild tear with minimal symptoms to a more severe sprain which usually involves a complete rupture of the ligament. A more severe sprain brings pain, swelling, bruising and usually the inability to put weight on the joint.
How Do You Get A Sprain?
As you may have guessed, the National Institutes of Health identifies ankle sprains as the most common type–this makes sense as it’s a joint that gets a ton of wear and tear. But if you stretch out your hands during a fall (a natural reflex for most of us), you can also sprain your wrist. We also see occasional thumb sprains, mostly related to skiing and other sports. Your knees have some important ligaments which can also get sprained, usually in a sports-related setting. Elbow sprains are pretty uncommon (strains are much more likely), but we see them from time to time. Sports are definitely one of the main causes of joint sprains, but they’re far from the only activity that leads to sprains. Slip and fall injuries, household injuries and high heels can also cause sprains.
Here are some of the main factors in sprain injuries, according to the NIH:
- Falling on an outstretched arm.
- Landing on the side of the foot–this can happen in day to day life or during sports including trail running, basketball, tennis, football, and soccer.
- Walking on an uneven or slippery surface.
How Do You Treat A Sprain Injury?
While your grandmother may swear by her heating pad, the jury is officially in that ice is the way to go for sprain injuries. Where sprains are concerned, reducing swelling is key, and cold rather than hot is the way to do it.
The NIH recommends the tried and true RICE approach to reduce swelling and discomfort for 24 to 48 hours after injury. This means Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
- Rest: avoid certain activities and in some cases avoid putting weight on the affected joint. Your doctor may recommend crutches for a few days for an ankle sprain.
- Ice: experts recommend applying an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day.
- Compression: put pressure on the injured area to decrease swelling. This can mean elastic wraps, air casts, and splints. For more severe ankle sprains, your doctor may recommend a walking boot which keeps air pressure on the joint while walking.
- Elevation: Keep the injured ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist elevated on a pillow. Elevating the injured area above your heart can help decrease swelling.
Should I See My Doctor For A Sprain?
Many mild sprains can be treated at home with minimal intervention, but we still recommend seeing your doctor if you think you have a sprain. You’ll want an x-ray to make sure there are no fractures or broken bones, and depending on the severity of the sprain, you may need some support from your doctor. In some cases, a hard cast may be recommended to keep the joint stable–especially in the case of an ankle injury. With the worst sprains, you may need surgery by an orthopaedic surgeon to repair the ligament.
How Long Does Recovery From A Sprain Take And What Does It Involve?
Recovery time depends on the patient and the injury in question, but the NIH offers some broad guidelines. Patients can expect a recovery period of 3 to 6 weeks for a mild sprain, 2 to 3 months for a moderate sprain and up to a year for a severe sprain.
Your healthcare provider will give you some exercises to help you regain strength and range of motion in the joint and in some case will prescribe supervised physical therapy to help you get back to your normal activities. It’s key to remember not to push getting back to sports and other more demanding activities too soon. In that case, you put yourself at risk for re-injury.
How Can I Prevent A Sprain?
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons along with our respected team have a few simple tips for avoiding sprains:
- Be careful when walking in slippery or snowy conditions.
- Wear a wrist guard when skating, skateboarding or skiing.
- Wear appropriate footwear that fits well for walking and playing sports. The right kind of athletic shoes are key for providing ankle protection.
Treating Sprains: See Your Doctor And Take It Easy
Many sprains can be treated at home. But it’s best to see your doctor if you suspect a sprain so you can be certain you’re on the best path to healing. We can help make sure you get the proper care and support you need for stabilization and a complete recovery. And, of course, take it easy, don’t push yourself too hard and don’t forget the ice!