Key Points about Hand, Elbow or Wrist Sprain or Strain

  • Hand, elbow, and wrist sprain and strains are common injuries with similar symptoms.
  • Anyone can sprain or strain their hands, wrists, or elbows.
  • Hand, elbow, and wrist sprains are when a ligament is torn. Hand, elbow, and wrist strains are when a tendon is strained or stretched.
  • Hand, elbow, and wrist sprain and strains are often caused by overuse, activities requiring repetitive motions, and trauma.
  • Most hand, elbow, and wrist sprains and strains will heal quickly with proper treatment.

Overview

Hand, elbow, and wrist sprains and strains are common injuries. When there is a tear in the ligaments, which are tissues that connect bones, it is a sprain. If a muscle or tendon is strained or overstretched, it is considered a sprain. Tendons are tissues that connect bones to muscles.

Symptoms of hand, elbow, and wrist sprains and strains are very similar and often include pain, swelling, reduced range of motion, and stiffness.

Many hand, elbow, and wrist sprains and strains are caused by overexertion, sports activities, and activities that require repetitive motion of the hands, wrists, or elbows.

Hand, elbow, and wrist sprains and strains usually heal quickly, often within a few weeks.

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain causes

There are a variety of causes of hand, elbow and wrist sprain and strains, including:

  • Injuries during physical activities such as basketball, tennis, boxing, wrestling or gymnastics, among others
  • Trauma due to falls or a direct hit to the area
  • Repetitive motions during athletic or work activities
  • Lifting and moving heavy items

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain symptoms

Hand, elbow, and wrist sprains and strains are different injuries, but they have similar symptoms, including:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Reduced range of motion
  • Stiffness

With sprains, there is often bruising around the affected area. With strains, the affected muscle may experience muscle spasms. 

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain complications

If a hand, elbow or wrist sprain is left untreated, you could experience:

  • Increased pain
  • Chronic pain, or arthritis
  • Permanent damage to the muscle, tendon or ligament
  • Instability in the joint

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain risk factors

Anyone can get a hand, elbow, or wrist strain or sprain. There are a variety of factors that can increase your likelihood of developing a hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain, including:

  • Playing a sport or performing activities that require repetitive motions or exertion of the hands, elbows, or wrists can increase the risk of hand, elbow, or wrist strains and sprains.
  • New routines. A sudden increase in physical activity with a lack of preparation or conditioning can increase the risk of hand, elbow, or wrist strains and sprains.
  • People who are prone to falling are also at greater risk for hand, elbow or wrist strains, and sprains.
  • Prior injury. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments that have been previously injured are more prone to sprains and strains.

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain prevention

Although not all hand, elbow and wrist sprain or strains can be prevented, you can avoid some cases by following these guidelines:

  • Wear the recommended and appropriate equipment for each activity, such as correctly fitting shoes and braces.
  • When starting a new exercise routine, increase the intensity level gradually.
  • Choose levels, flat surfaces for running or exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet to help avoid bone loss.
  • Vary your physical activities to avoid repetitive motion and overuse.
  • Do not continue to exercise with a hand, elbow, or wrist that is swollen or painful.

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose a hand, elbow, or wrist strain or sprain. During a clinic visit, your doctor will perform a physical exam and take a full medical history. Your doctor may try to rule our breaks or fractures. In some cases, your doctor will order imaging tests such as:

  • X-ray
  • MRI

These tests may be able to determine what is causing your pain.

Hand, elbow or wrist sprain or strain treatment

Hand, elbow, or wrist strains and sprains can generally be treated with nonsurgical treatments. Many people experience symptom relief within days with rest and medication. If your pain is affecting your ability to perform your daily activities, your doctor may recommend a nonsurgical treatment such as:

  • Staying off the affected foot and pausing strenuous exercise is imperative during rehabilitation.
  • Heat and ice. Alternating ice and heat can help relieve pain and make movement easier.
  • A cast or splint to immobilize the foot and ankle
  • Physical therapy. Physical therapy is key, first to reduce pain and swelling and then to increase strength and stability and improve range of motion.
  • Keep your ankle and foot elevated with a pillow when you’re sitting or lying.
  • OTC medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen can relieve pain caused by hand, elbow, or wrist strains or sprains.

For some hand, elbow or wrist sprains or strains, surgery may be recommended to repair a torn ligament or tendon.

When to Seek Care

If your pain lasts more than a few days or is progressively worsening, call your doctor to schedule an appointment.

Next Steps

Your doctor will develop a treatment plan customized to your injury. Carefully follow your doctor’s treatment instructions.

If your pain intensifies, call your doctor right away to discuss the next steps. You may need a more advanced treatment option if a first-line conservative treatment is not effective.