Diagnosing sprains and strains 

When diagnosing a sprain or strain, your doctor will ask how you injured yourself and examine the affected area. An X-ray may be needed in severe cases.

Your doctor will want to know about treatments you've already tried, as well as any medication you're currently taking that could affect the injury, such as anticoagulants (medication that reduces the blood's clotting ability).

The affected joint or muscle will be examined to assess the severity of your injury. Your doctor will check for:

  • pain, discomfort and tenderness in the injured area
  • swelling and inflammation
  • any lumps and bumps not usually present
  • bruising or bleeding in the joint or muscle

They'll also assess how much you can move the injured joint or muscle and whether you're able to put your weight on it.

If you have a severe sprain, your doctor may check whether the ligaments are loose. This is sometimes called joint instability, mechanical instability or ligamentous laxity.

X-rays

You won't usually need to have an X-ray if you have a sprain or strain unless:

  • you're unable to put any weight on your ankle, foot or leg
  • the bone is tender at specific points on your ankle, foot or leg
  • you have difficulty moving your knee

An X-ray may also be recommended if you're over 55 years of age and have injured your knee as you're at increased risk of bone fracture after this type of injury.

Page last reviewed: 06/03/2016

Next review due: 01/03/2019