Key Points about Joint Sprains

  • Joint sprains occur when excessive trauma to a joint damages the joint’s ligaments and soft tissues. 
  • Symptoms of joint sprains include pain, swelling, bruising, limited mobility, and feeling a “pop” at the time of the possible injury. 
  • Joint sprains can be prevented by stretching regularly, strengthening the muscles surrounding a compromised joint, and wearing appropriate footwear. 
  • Call your doctor if you are unable to walk, or if your sprain is accompanied by numbness in the area or pain in the nearby bones.

Overview

Sprains are caused by excessive trauma to a joint. When a joint is twisted or overextended, it can over-stretch ligaments and cause tears in the ligament tissues, leading to pain, swelling, bruising, and limited mobility. 

Sprains may occur from landing on an uneven surface, pivoting awkwardly during exercise, or falling on a joint with all your body weight. Most sprains heal on their own with rest, ice, compression and elevation. For sprains that are accompanied by numbness, pain in nearby bones, or an inability to walk, call your doctor, as your condition may be more serious and not be able to heal on its own. Your doctor will perform a physical examination and diagnostic testing to determine the extent of your injury. 

Joint sprain causes

Sprains are caused by ligament damage after excessive, acute stress on a joint. 

Certain activities may cause sprains in certain joints, for example:

  • Ankle sprains are often caused by walking, running or landing on an uneven surface
  • Knee sprains may occur after pivoting during an athletic competition or other physical activity
  • Wrist sprains can result from landing on your hand after a fall 

Joint sprain risk factors

Risk factors for joint sprains include:

  • Walking or exercising on slippery or uneven surfaces
  • Fatigued muscles, which are less able to provide adequate support for your joints
  • Using worn-out or ill-fitting footwear or sporting equipment

Joint sprain symptoms

Symptoms of sprains include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Limited mobility
  • Hearing a “pop” at the time of the injury

Joint sprain prevention

Joint sprains can be prevented by:

  • Stretching regularly
  • Doing strength and conditioning exercises that are specific for your sport
  • Strengthening the muscles around the injured joint
  • Wearing appropriate and supportive footwear

Joint sprain diagnosis

When assessing a possible joint sprain, your doctor will perform a physical examination to identify any swelling and particularly tender areas. Taking note of the pain’s location and intensity can provide clues as to the nature and extent of the injury. 

Your doctor may also order an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to rule out bone fractures or other injuries, and to determine the extent of the damage. 

Joint sprain treatment

If you think you have sprained a joint, you can treat pain at home through:

  • Resting the joint, and avoiding any activities that cause pain
  • Applying ice to the area, even if you plan to seek medical attention soon
  • Gently compressing the area with wrap bandage to alleviate swelling
  • Elevating the affected area above heart-level, to reduce swelling

You may also take over-the-counter medications to mitigate pain, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. 

Your doctor may recommend immobilizing the injured joint with a brace or splint. Serious injuries, such as those involving a torn ligament, may require surgery. 

When to seek care

Mild sprains do not require medical attention and will heal with rest. Seek medical attention if you:

  • Cannot bear any weight on the affected joint
  • Have pain in the bones directly next to the affected joint
  • Have numbness in the affected area

Next Steps

You should be able to start to gently use the injured joint again after the first one to two days, after which time you should notice gradual improvement. Depending on the extent of the injury, sprains can take from a few days to a few months to fully heal. 

Ask your doctor about strength and stability exercises that can prevent future injury.