Sprains and strains are very common injuries that affect muscles and ligaments.
They often occur if you change direction or speed suddenly, fall and land awkwardly or collide with an object or person – such as when playing sports.
Read more about the causes of sprains and strains.
A sprain occurs when one or more of your ligaments have been stretched, twisted or torn, usually as a result of excessive force being applied to a joint.
Ligaments are strong bands of tissue around joints that connect bones to one another.
Common locations for sprains include the knees, ankles, wrists and thumbs.
Symptoms of a sprain can include:
- pain around the affected joint
- being unable to use the joint normally or being unable to put weight on it
The swelling from a sprain will often occur soon after the injury, but the bruising may not show until later or it may not show at all. Bruising can sometimes occur some distance from the affected joint, as blood from the damaged tissue seeps along the muscles and around the joint before coming close to the skin.
A strain occurs when muscle fibres stretch or tear. They usually occur when the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits or it has been forced to contract (shorten) too quickly.
Muscle strains are particularly common in the legs and back, such as hamstring strains and lumbar (lower back) strains.
Symptoms of a muscle strain can include:
- pain in the affected muscle
- muscle spasms (when the muscles contract tightly and painfully)
- loss of some, or all, of the function in the affected muscle
- blood collecting under the skin at the site of the strain – this is known as a haematoma, and it may look like a large, dark-red bruise
When to seek medical help
Most sprains and strains are relatively minor and can be cared for at home (see below).
However, you should visit a minor injuries unit (MIU) or your GP if you think you have a sprain or strain and:
- the pain is particularly severe
- you cannot move the injured joint or muscle
- you cannot put any weight on the injured limb, or it gives way when you try to use it
- the injured area looks crooked or has unusual lumps or bumps (other than swelling)
- you have numbness, discolouration or coldness in any part of the injured area
- the symptoms have not started to improve within a few days of self-treatment
These cases should be assessed by a doctor because they may indicate that your sprain or strain is severe or that you have another serious injury, such as a fracture.
Read more about diagnosing sprains and strains.
How sprains and strains are treated
Minor sprains and strains can usually be treated with self-care techniques, such as PRICE therapy (protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation).
Generally, you should try to start moving a sprained joint as soon as it is not too painful to do so, whereas a strained muscle should normally be immobilised for at least a few days.
Ordinary painkillers such as paracetamol can be used to help ease any pain, although stronger medication can be prescribed if the pain is more severe.
Most people will regain full use of the affected body part within six to eight weeks, although severe injuries may take longer to heal and some people may experience persistent problems lasting several months or longer.
Read more about treating sprains and strains.
Preventing sprains and strains
There are a number of ways you can help to prevent sprains and strains, including:
Read more about preventing sprains and strains.
Sprains and strains often occur when playing sports
Driving after an injury
If you have a sprained ankle, avoid driving until strength and mobility has returned.
The length of time you are unable to drive for will depend on the severity of the sprain and how quickly it recovers. Your GP or physiotherapist can give you more advice.
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Page last reviewed: 13/05/2014
Next review due: 13/05/2016