By Corey Lewis, CPT, CSCS
Ouch! You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t experienced a sprain—the tearing of one or more ligaments in the joints, resulting in pain, swelling, and bruising. While they’re usually less serious than fractures, even minor sprains can mean major pain or, at the very least, significant discomfort, while more severe sprains can require medical attention. We’ll walk you through what to do if you’re experiencing a sprain—since you’ll want to keep off your feet!
First, let’s make sure we understand some basic terminology: a sprain is when you tear the ligament(s) in one of your joints, which is where your bones connect. A great example is your ankle, which is where the bones of your leg and foot meet. According to Mayo Clinic, the ankle is the most commonly sprained part of the body—often from a clumsy landing after a jump or an awkward step while running or walking. This can happen often when you’re not properly warmed-up, such as when you run in cold weather. Like many sprains, it’s frequently accompanied by a very unpleasant popping sound and/or sensation.
A strain, on the other hand, is an injury to a muscle or tendon—it’s what people mean when they talk about “pulling a muscle,” like a hamstring. Sprains and strains are similar injuries with many of the same symptoms, like soreness and swelling, and they often respond to the same treatment. It may be difficult for you to distinguish which one you’re experiencing, which is when it becomes necessary to check in with a medical professional to see what’s really going on.
Now for some good news—if your sprain isn’t severe, it’s very possible for you to treat it at home and have it resolve itself in a matter of days. Health professionals use the acronym RICE to help patients to remember the four components of the most effective treatment: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Here’s what to do:
Keep the pressure off the sprained joint, even if that means staying off your feet altogether in the case of a sprained ankle, knee, or toe. Use the injured joint as little as possible until the swelling and pain subside.
Apply an ice pack to the injured area as soon as you can, and repeat it several times a day for periods of 10-15 minutes each. It’s a good idea to wrap the ice pack in a washcloth or small towel instead of applying it directly to your skin. Be sure not to use it for more than 20 minutes at a time.
You can wrap the injured joint with an elastic (ACE) bandage to help reduce swelling. UW Health has a great primer on how to apply a compression wrap if this is your first time. Be sure you don’t wrap so tightly that you cut off your circulation.
After you’ve iced and wrapped the injured joint, you can help it heal faster by elevating it (resting it in a raised position, at or above the level of your heart). If it’s a sprained ankle, for example, you can rest your foot on a coffee table or footstool while you’re sitting on the couch. If you’ve hurt your arm, try resting it on a firm pillow on your desk or balanced on the arm of your couch or easy chair.
You may also find that over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like ibuprofen and naproxen, can help relieve the pain and swelling, but you should always check with your healthcare provider before taking any new medication. Note that acetaminophen, while effective at reducing your discomfort level, does not treat inflammation and may not be as effective at helping you heal. If you’re considering a holistic solution, do some research on turmeric as an anti-inflammatory aid, or even the health benefits of certain teas.
When the pain and swelling begin to subside, you can try gently wiggling or stretching the injured area to help return it to normal.
If you’ve sprained your elbow, the protocol we’ve outlined should be effective for all but the most severe injuries. Rest the affected arm, apply ice and compression, and keep it elevated above the level of your heart as much as possible. Try to use your other arm and hand in your daily life as much as you can until your sprain has healed fully. If it’s been more than a few days and you’re still experiencing pain and swelling, it’s a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider to make sure your elbow is truly on the mend.
The best thing you can do for a sprained knee is to give it a few days to heal using the trusted RICE regimen. While running and other athletic activities like tennis, yoga, and barre are obviously out, you’ll also want to minimize walking as much as you possibly can. Keep your knee wrapped and elevated both at home and at work, and apply ice packs 3-4 times a day. If your knee isn’t feeling better after a few days of rest, give your doctor a call.
If you’ve injured your wrist, you’ll want to give it a break from daily activities like writing, typing, and brushing your teeth. Use your other hand as much as you can, even if it’s not your dominant one. Wrap your wrist in an ACE bandage (not so tightly that you cut off blood flow to your fingers!), and use a small ice pack to treat the inflammation. You might find an appropriately sized one in the children’s first aid section of your drugstore, or you can use a few ice cubes in a sandwich bag, wrapped in a washcloth. As with any sprain, check in with a medical professional if you’re not feeling some relief in a couple of days.
We know a sprain can be a real bummer—not only is it a painful injury, but it also makes your daily life more difficult and takes you away from your favorite athletic and fitness activities until it’s resolved. Thankfully, with adherence to the tried-and-true RICE regimen, you should be back on your feet (or back in downward dog, as the case may be) in just a few days. In the meantime, rest and take good care of yourself. You’ll be feeling much better before you know it.