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Symptoms, Causes, Related Conditions, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments that connect bones in joints, different from a strain which affects muscles, and commonly occurs in ankles, knees, wrists, and thumbs.
  • Symptoms of sprains include joint or muscle pain, swelling, bruising, joint stiffness, inability to use the injured joint, and a popping sound or feeling at the time of injury.
  • Sprains can be caused by sudden twisting of the joint, falling, or sports injuries, but can be prevented through muscle strengthening exercises, warming up before exercise, wearing proper footwear, and walking or running on even surfaces.
  • If a sprain is suspected, immediate treatment includes Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (R.I.C.E) and over-the-counter pain relievers can help manage pain and swelling.
  • In severe cases, medical attention may be required for physical therapy or surgery, and the doctor may inquire about the circumstances of the injury, previous injuries, self-treatment attempts, other symptoms, and how the sprain affects walking ability.

What is a Sprain?

A sprain is classified as the stretching or tearing of the ligaments, which are the bands of tissue that connect two bones together in your joints. It’s important to note that while similar, a sprain and a strain are different, as a strain affects your muscles, and a sprain affects your ligaments. The most common locations for sprains are:

  • Ankles
  • Knees
  • Wrists
  • Thumbs

Possible Symptoms for Sprain

If you’ve suffered a sprain, it’s usually pretty easy to tell. Very quickly after you’ve torn the ligaments, you’ll feel pain, swelling, and begin to see the area bruising. Some people also hear or feel a “pop” in your joints at the time of injury. More specific symptoms include the following:

  • Joint and/or muscle pain[1]
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Joint stiffness
  • Inability to use the injured joint
  • Popping sound or feeling in the joint at the time of injury[2]

Top 3 Sprain Causes

1. Sudden Twisting of the Joint

A sprain can be caused by a sudden twisting of the joint, which might occur when dancing, falling, or running on an uneven surface. A sprained ankle is one of the most common sprains caused by twisting, but many knee and wrist sprains are also caused by twists.[3] Other movements that can cause a sprained ankle include landing awkwardly and heavily on the foot after jumping or pivoting and having the foot stepped or landed on during collisions in sports like basketball, football, and soccer.

2. Falling

Falling can cause you to land in a way that twists your joints or stretches and tears the ligaments surrounding the joints. Falling down during sports and exercise can lead to a sprain, as well as falling after stepping off an elevated surface such as a sidewalk. Running over tree roots and branches might cause you to trip and fall, as can wearing shoes that are too big or not appropriate for certain activities, such as wearing high heels when walking long distances.

3. Sports Injury

Sports sprains can be caused by collision or falling during contact sports such as football. A sprain can also be caused by overuse of certain joints, such as swinging a racket repeatedly while playing tennis. In addition to causing sprains in the ankle, wrist, and knee, some sports could cause thumb sprains.

Sports commonly known to cause sprains include football, basketball, baseball, tennis, racquetball, soccer, volleyball, and skiing.[4] Many of these sports require jumping and rolling or twisting of the foot.

4 Ways to Prevent Sprains

1. Strengthen Muscles

Exercise and weight training can strengthen and improve the framework around the joints, consisting mainly of ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Strength training helps protect joints and prevent serious injuries when falls and collisions do occur, and it could lessen the severity of injuries. Muscle strength also helps bones stay properly aligned to lessen the incidence of falling and twisted joints.

Start exercising and strength training regularly to benefit from stronger muscles and a reduced risk for sprains.[5] Adults should perform moderate-intensity aerobic exercises such as walking or swimming for a total of 150 minutes per week, along with muscle-strengthening exercises that work all major muscle groups at least two days per week. Older adults should perform the same fitness routine but increase their amount of aerobic activity to 300 minutes per week.[6]

2. Warm Up Before Exercising

Warming up muscles and joints before exercising can increase their range of movement, reducing the risk for sprains during a workout. Warming up helps boost circulation and moves the joints through a range of motion similar to those you plan on doing while exercising. For example, runners can warm up by walking a few laps or walking for five to 10 minutes before beginning a run.[7]

Talk to your doctor or sports trainer about proper warm-ups you can do prior to your fitness or sports training routine. Avoid doing static stretches before exercising, as this can increase the risk for sprain and injury. Stick to dynamic movements, such as walking lunges, jumping jacks, and leg swings, before exercise.[8]

3. Wear Proper Footwear

Wearing the appropriate footwear for the sport or event can help improve ankle stability and minimize the risk of falling. Shoes that offer ankle support help protect joints in the ankles and knees. Evidence suggests that high-top shoes are ideal to wear when playing sports like basketball that carry a high risk for sprains. High-top shoes offer stability and can prevent past injuries from reoccurring.[9]

High heels are linked to an increased risk for sprains, especially when worn for long periods of time.[10] In addition to causing instability, high heels can change the joint structure of the foot and ankle in ways that increase the risk for sprains.[11]

Choose the proper footwear for your activity, and consult with a doctor or sports trainer if you need help choosing a shoe that offers the right ankle support for your activity.

4. Walk and Run on Even Surfaces

Uneven surfaces, such as those found on hiking trails and paths located in the forest or mountains, can cause falls and accidents that commonly lead to sprains. Walking anywhere that has uneven ground, including gardens, cobblestone streets, and places with stairs, can lead to a sprain.

Be aware of your environment and surroundings at all times when walking and running. Pay attention when stepping off curbs and sidewalks and when running in places where there may be tree roots and other debris. Steer clear of areas that look as though they are unstable and could lead to falls and accidents.

Possible Sprain Treatment Options

If you believe you’ve sprained ligaments, R.I.C.E treatment should be started immediately. RICE stands for:

  • Rest – Try to move the affected area as little as possible.
  • Ice – Cold treatments helps prevent pain and swelling. Just remember to never apply ice directly to your skin, always wrap ice or an icepack in a towel or cloth.
  • Compression – Wrapping the injured area in an elastic bandage will help to keep the swelling down.
  • Elevation – To further minimize swelling, try to keep the affected ligaments above the level of your heart.

Taking ibuprofen (Advil® or Motrin®) or naproxen (Aleve) can also help with pain and swelling. While mild sprains can be treated at home, you may need to see a doctor if you can’t move the affected joint at all, can’t walk more than four steps without significant pain (if you’ve sprained an ankle or your knees), and/or if the affected joint feels numb. You may require physical therapy, and even surgery is the sprain is significant.

Other potential treatments for sprains include ice therapy[12], joint compression, bracing or splinting, or surgery in more severe cases.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Your Sprain Treatment

  • When did the sprain occur?
  • How did the sprain occur?
  • How exactly was your body moving when the sprain occurred?
  • Did you hear or feel a popping or snapping when the injury occurred?
  • Have you ever injured this part of your body in the past?
  • How have your previous sprains occurred?
  • Have you tried treating the sprain on your own at home?
  • Have you experienced any other symptoms aside from those related to sprain?
  • Does your sprain affect your ability to walk?
  • Where do you feel pain from the sprain?

Sprain May Also Be Known as

  • Torn ligament
  • Stretched ligament

Frequently asked questions

  • What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

    A sprain involves the stretching or tearing of ligaments, which are tissues connecting bones in joints, while a strain affects the muscles.
  • What are the typical symptoms of a sprain?

    Symptoms can include joint or muscle pain, swelling, bruising, stiffness in the joint, inability to use the injured joint, and possibly a popping sound or sensation at the time of the injury.
  • How can I prevent sprains?

    Preventing sprains can involve strengthening your muscles through exercise and weight training, warming up before exercising, wearing proper footwear, and ensuring you walk or run on even surfaces.
  • What should I do if I suspect I have a sprain?

    If you suspect a sprain, start the R.I.C.E treatment immediately, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help manage pain and swelling.
  • When should I see a doctor for a sprain?

    In severe cases or if symptoms persist, you should see a doctor. They may recommend physical therapy or, in some cases, surgery.
  • What might a doctor ask if I visit them for a sprain?

    A doctor may ask about how the sprain occurred, your body movement at the time, any popping or snapping sound, previous injuries, self-treatment attempts, other symptoms, and how the sprain affects your ability to walk.
  • Can I treat a sprain at home?

    Yes, initial treatment for a sprain can be done at home using the R.I.C.E method and over-the-counter pain relievers. However, if symptoms persist or worsen, it's important to seek medical attention.
  • What causes a sprain?

    Sprains can be caused by sudden twisting of a joint, falling, or sports injuries.

Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Related Health Concerns

Athlete's Foot

Broken Leg


Elbow Pain

Herniated Disc

Joint Subluxation


Muscle Relaxers

Pinched Nerve

Psoriatic Arthritis

Rotator Cuff Injury

Shortness of Breath

Spinal Decompression

Spinal Stenosis



Tooth Extraction

Wrist Pain

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