Introduction

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscle and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.

Check if you have a sprain or strain

It's likely to be a sprain or strain if:

  • you have pain, tenderness or weakness - often around your ankle, foot, wrist, thumb, knee, leg or back
  • the injured area is swollen or bruised
  • you can't put weight on the injury or use it normally
  • you have muscle spasms or cramping - where your muscles painfully tighten on their own

Is it a sprain or a strain?

Sprains:

  • Torn or twisted ligament (tissue that connects the joints)
  • Most common in: wrists, ankles, thumbs, knees

Strains:

  • Overstretched or torn muscle (also known as a pulled muscle)
  • Most common in: knees, feet, legs, back

How to treat sprains and strains yourself

For the first couple of days, follow the 4 steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:

  1. Rest - stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
  2. Ice - apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
  3. Compression - wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.
  4. Elevate - keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.

To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat - such as hot baths and heat packs - alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.

When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle doesn't become stiff.

A pharmacist can help with sprains and strains

Speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest tablets, or a cream or gel you rub on the skin.

Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain and ibuprofen will bring down swelling. However, you shouldn't take ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.

Find a pharmacy

How long it takes for a sprain or strain to heal

After 2 weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better. Avoid strenous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there's a risk of further damage.

Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.

You can't always prevent sprains and strains

Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle. Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.

Get advice from NHS Direct Wales on 0845 46 47 or 111 Wales if:

  • the injury is not feeling any better after treating it yourself
    the pain or swelling is getting worse

  • you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery – this could be an infection

They will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.

Treatment at a minor injuries unit

You may be given self-care advice or prescribed a stronger painkiller.

If you need an X-ray it might be possible to have one at the unit or you may be referred to hospital.

Find your nearest Minor Injuries Unit here.

Physiotherapy for sprains and strains

If you have a sprain or strain that's taking longer than usual to get better, your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Find a physiotherapist.

Go to A&E or call 999 if:

  • you heard a crack when you had your injury
  • the injured body part has changed shape
  • the injury is numb, discoloured or cold to touch

You may have broken a bone and will need an X-ray.

 

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 28/10/2019 11:06:31