When you have a sprain, it means that one of the ligaments connecting your bones together has stretched or torn, usually due to some form of trauma.
Sprains differ from the similar injury known as a strain, as a strain affects not the ligaments of your joints, but instead either muscles or the tendons which attach your muscles to bone.
Sprains can occur in essentially any joint, though of course it’s much easier to sprain joints which are more flexible and more likely to be impacted during sports, occupational hazards, or any number of accidents. A sprained ankle is the most common form of sprain, often occurring due to taking a step poorly and rolling your ankle too far to the side.
Symptoms of Sprains
- Pain. It’s rare to have a sprain without pain when moving the affected joint. Paying close attention to where exactly you’re feeling the pain can help distinguish between sprains, strains, fractures, and other forms of injury.
- Bruising. You’ll typically see some amount of bruising with serious sprains, especially those which affect less padded joints such as your ankle. Sprains more obscured by other tissues and bone, for example a sprained knee, may only show slight redness or no coloring at all.
- Swelling. Swelling is almost inevitable with a sprain, and can be the first sign that you have a real injury—often, the swelling will occur before pain, bruising, or other symptoms.
- Limited motion. Depending on the severity of your sprain, you may have difficulty moving the affected joint, due to pain or serious stretching of the ligament. The more limited your motion, the more you should consider seeing a doctor.
- Tenderness. Mild sprains are often characterized only by tenderness—a bit of oversensitivity to weight or touch, but not much else.
- Pop feeling or sound. It’s extremely common for the moment of a sprain to be accompanied by an audible popping sound from the affected joint—in fact, it can be one of the easiest ways to determine a sprain has occurred instead of a different injury. You may feel a pop when you sprain a ligament, even if you don’t hear one.
- Inflammation. Simple inflammation of the nearby tissues is nearly inevitable with a sprain, even a mild one.
- Inability to support weight. Sometimes, your first sign of injury won’t be pain or swelling, but a joint that refuses to support any weight.
What Causes a Sprain?
Sprains occur as a result of a traumatic over-stressing of a joint. When a ligament is pulled too far, too fast, or too hard, there’s a chance that it stretches or tears. The severity of damage can run a very wide gamut; a tiny tear that heals on its own in a few days and a severe tear that detaches your ligament from the bone and requires surgery to repair both constitute sprains, though the latter is often just referred to as a torn ligament, such as with a torn ACL.
Sprains can occur in daily life, sports and other physical activities, or as a result of an occupational hazard. Common sources of sprains include ankle sprains from losing balance on stairs or after a jump, wrist sprains from catching yourself after a fall, or knee sprains from improper pivots.
Because sprains are injuries occurring primarily from physical accidents, the most common risk factors are shared with other causes of physical injury. Physical activity while while wearing ill-fitting equipment, such as running shoes, can contribute to an increased risk of sprain. Time spent on unsafe surfaces also increases your risk. Risk of a sprain also increases with age.
Seeing a Doctor
Minor sprains can be treated at home in most cases, with little more than first aid. Keep weight and strain off the sprained joint and you should recover with time.
More severe sprains, however, can lead to long term loss of function if not treated professionally. The worst sprains involve significant stretching or tearing of tendons in a way which cannot heal on its own, and thus requires surgery.
Knowing how severe your sprain can be difficult, and for this reasons you generally want to see a doctor—just to be sure. Signs of more serious injury mean you should see a doctor much sooner; these signs include numbness in the affected area, a complete inability to support any weight on the affected joint, and serious pain—especially if the pain seems more associated with the bones of your joint than the ligaments.