Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. They can happen to anyone but are common in people who play sports. 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

Treating sprains and strains yourself

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

  • Protection - protect from further injury (for example by using a support or high-top, lace-up shoes)
  • Rest - avoid activity for the first 48-72 hours following injury
  • Ice - apply ice wrapped in a damp towel for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours during the day for the first 48-72 hours following the injury. This should not be left on whilst the person is asleep
  • Compression - with a simple elastic bandage or elasticated tubular bandage, which should be snug but not tight, to help control swelling and support the injury. This should be removed before going to sleep
  • Elevation - keep the injured area elevated and supported on a pillow until the swelling is controlled. If the leg is injured, prolonged periods with the leg not elevated should be avoided

To avoid HARM in the first 72 hours after the injury - avoid the following:

  • Heat - for example hot baths, saunas, and heat packs
  • Alcohol - increases bleeding and swelling and decreases healing
  • Running - or any other form of exercise which may cause further damage
  • Massage - may increase bleeding and swelling

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.

After two weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better. Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to eight weeks, as there's a risk of further damage. Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.

When to seek medical help

If your injury is not very severe you should speak with a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest:

  • tablets
  • a cream or gel you rub on the skin

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

You should see a GP if:

  • you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery

These could be signs of an infection.

Go to a minor injuries unit if:

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

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.

Go to the emergency department 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.

Physiotherapy for sprains and strains

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

Physiotherapy waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Helping to prevent sprains and strains

Sprains and strains happen when you place excessive force on a joint, or overstretch/twist a muscle. Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport beyond what you are used to, are common causes.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was published February 2018

This page is due for review May 2021

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