Sprains and strains 

Introduction 

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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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.

Sprains

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
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • tenderness

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.

Strains

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
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • 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.

Page last reviewed: 13/05/2014

Next review due: 13/05/2016

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Comments

The 7 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Rainbow1234 said on 28 August 2014

I recently sprained my ankle quite severely after a fall, it was swollen extremely, black and blue and I could not put any weight on it at all. However, I found when I went to a&e the nurse told me not to use crutches the next morning when I went to work, didn't suggest painkillers and said I shouldn't use elastic bandage and will not refer to Physio. I found this bizarre as I couldn't put any weight on it without severe pain, never mind go to work with or without crutches! I researched some websites and followed RICE treatment which seems sensible. 5 days later I went to work with stretch bandage and crutches for 4 days however this made the pain worse, so I started to rest it again for a further 8 days, this is when I could see improvement. My Gp suggested resting and using crutches while I wait to get results for the re-X-Ray, and will think of a rehab plan. However, the next Gp I saw when I went to get my Xray results used to work at a&e and repeated what the nurse at a&e had told me. I shouldn't use crutches after the first day, walk as normal and take strong painkillers to fight through the pain! This might be ok after the swelling has improved and the pain isn't too unbearable but suggesting walking normally the next day after a severe ankle injury sounds bizarre and surely will aggravate the injury! There are conflicting advice being given, so it would be good to know what is the right thing to do.

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bumblebee1 said on 31 August 2013

i have now got knee pain due though last night, my friend fell on my knee and my knee could not bend, due to lot of drinking the pain at frist was painful i could not feel my leg for like five mins i got up walk around, my mate said she heard a large noise when happen i did not however it was loud. i carry on my night however this moring the pain is crazy it even woke me up everytime i move it only if i bend it back even sightly i feel and lot of pressure in my joint of my knee and is very painful to move, any help what i should do or what it is?

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free30 said on 19 August 2013

I always get sprain and strain confused and it seems you do too.

"Generally, you should keep moving a sprained joint but immobilise a sprained [strained] muscle. "

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lunaboo said on 29 November 2012

As qualified first aider am now confused - just back from a&e with sprained ankle, no treatment "we dont use bandages now" no explanation, just " you need to walk on it" when its so painful i cant put it on the ground. So i look at a few sites and see what i was taught still stands, rest ice and compression but now some interpret c is for comfortable. Wont be bothering the casualty staff now as they clearly dont want to know but would be good to have some clarity on what the right thing to do is.

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DanielNastaszyc said on 01 August 2012

I'm more then 12 weeks after sprain or strain my ankle foot, 2x X-ray and is not broken, and no one can help me, I can't still walk. Help !!

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helgaw5110 said on 05 January 2012

you do not mention shoulder joint - i fell and hurt all the ligaments and muscles from the bottom of my arm to my neck and also the muscles etc down that side of my chest. use is slowly coming back, but it still hurts and i still do not have full use of my arm - have had some physio but cannot afford any more - so how long till i might get all use back - the fall was at the beginning of September, I did go to A&E but the nurse there was so awful I walked out - this happened 2 days after my daughter had died suddenly.

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suz54 said on 19 September 2011

i got a wrist strain and was wondering how long before it heals. so, it is 8 weeks fro strains?

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