I think a question that we all have after experiencing a sprained ankle or wrist is “Is this bad enough to go to the doctor?” Jessica from Vive Health has come with a guide that explains sprains and when you should seek additional help.

Sprains 101: Recognizing and Treating Sprains

A very common patient injury you’ll encounter as a nurse is a sprain. Don’t miss this quick guide to recognizing and treating sprains:

What is a Sprain?

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When it comes to the soft tissues in the body, ligaments play some of the most important roles in holding the skeleton together. As tough, fibrous tissue, ligaments connect bone to bone and stabilize joints. Somewhat elastic too, ligaments also facilitate various ranges of motion and allow you to bend, flex, extend, and rotate your joints.

A sprain is essentially an injury to one or more ligaments in a joint. When a ligament is stretched beyond its capacity, it can incur microscopic tears to its fibers and in severe cases, full tears of the entire ligament itself.

Sprains are characterized by a handful of symptoms, namely pain and swelling which present almost immediately following the injury. There may also be tenderness, mild to severe bruising under the skin, and in some cases, even physical deformity.

What are Common Sprain Locations?

Truly any joint from your fingers to your toes can be sprained. Most often, however, you will see sprains in the:

  • Ankles - rolling or twisting of the ankle joint often results in an overextension of the ligaments holding it together resulting in a sprain

  • Wrists - wrist sprains are commonly caused by a patient bracing a fall with their arms and hands extended outwards

  • Knees - injury to major ligaments in the knee like the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the medial collateral ligament are more common among athletes

  • Thumbs - common injuries like “skier’s thumb” and “gamekeeper’s thumb” are simply a sprain to ligaments in the thumb joints

Athletes are a group that frequently experience sprains in relation to playing sports, however, it’s not uncommon for anybody really, from kids to older adults, to experience a sprain. In fact, kids from age 10 to 19 reportedly experience the highest rates of ankle sprains.

How are Sprains Diagnosed?

While not all patients seek medical help with a sprain, for those who do, doctors will conduct a variety of tests to gauge the type and severity of a sprain. A clinical assessment will include a physical inspection of the site of injury as well as asking the patient to complete different motions, report their pain levels, describe how the injury occurred, and share their medical history.

Immediate warning signs that a sprain requires a comprehensive medical evaluation include:

  • Patient is unable to use the joint at all or it feels numb or unstable

  • Red streaks or discoloration appear on the skin spreading from the injury origin point

  • Patient is experiencing pain directly over the bones of a joint

  • Patient has injured the same area numerous times before

  • Pain is so severe conservative measures cannot touch it

Sprains are categorized into three different grades of severity - grade I, or a mild sprain, involves limited tearing or overstretching of a ligament; a grade 2 sprain, or moderate sprain, will involve more serious damage like a partially torn ligament; a grade 3 sprain, or severe sprain, will involve a full rupture of a ligament or the separation of a ligament from the bone altogether. In some cases, a popping or snapping sound will accompany a severe sprain at the time of injury.

Occasionally, imaging tests like x-rays will be conducted to gather a clearer picture of the extent of ligament damage as well as to rule out the existence of any fractures or floating fragments in and around the joint.

How Are Sprains Treated?

Conventional treatment methods apply to most sprains and in mild injuries can be administered at home. They include applying an ice pack to numb the area and reduce swelling, resting the injured joint, elevating it above heart level, and adding compression once the swelling has gone down with aids like an ACE bandage.

While it is critical that range of motion, strength, and stability be restored to the injured joint as soon as possible, some tools like arm slings, walking boots, splints, and wrist braces may be worn for added support. Find a list of top wrist braces here.

Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories can be used as needed to help with the pain as the injured joint heals and a doctor may also prescribe cortisone injections. In grade III sprains or chronic sprains, more drastic measures may be taken to repair and reconstruct the torn ligament including arthroscopic and open surgery.

Author Biography

Jessica Hegg is the content manager at ViveHealth.com.  Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle. Through her writing she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.

AuthorCourtney Tracy