Sprains & Strains

Symptoms of a sprain and a strain include pain and swelling around a joint, such as the ankle, wrist or thumb.

You can treat most sprains and strains with things like rest, ice and compression. Physiotherapy may help if it does not get better in a few weeks.

You can help reduce your risk of sprains and strains by warming up before exercising and not exercising too hard.

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 cannot put weight on the injury or use it normally
  • you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own

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 does not become stiff.

Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle.

Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.

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.


Page last reviewed: 12-01-2018
Next review due:12-01-2021

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