Sprain/Strain

Your Complete Sprain Guide: How To Identity, Treat, Rehab, And Prevent Wrist Sprains

sprained wrist

Wrist Sprains Are Complicated Injuries With A Lot Of Potential Questions 

Whether it be work, leisure, or recreational, your hands and wrists are likely involved in almost every activity you do day-to-day. As such, sprained wrists are quite frequent from both chronic overuse and acute injury incidences.

There are several grades of wrist sprains, and the symptoms of wrist sprains can often overlap with other wrist injuries like fractures.

Proper identification of the sprain is important in receiving the right treatment quickly, expediting recovery times, and lowering the risk of recurring injuries.

Knowing if you’re at high risk for wrist injuries and how to strengthen the wrists is important in preventing a sprained wrist.

If you’re suffering wrist pain, then you’re likely to be full of questions like these:  

  • What does a sprained wrist feel like?
  • Is my wrist fractured or sprained?
  • What is the best thing to do for a sprained wrist?
  • What are the best braces for a sprained wrist?
  • Who gets a sprained wrist?
  • What do I do if my wrist is sprained?
  • How can I prevent a sprained wrist?

Let’s address all your sprained wrist questions from risk to rehab.

What Is A Sprained Wrist? 

Ligaments are the anatomical feature involved in a wrist sprain. The wrist is a very complex joint and bone system that serves as a bridge between the hand and forearm. Think of ligaments as a rope system for the bones and joints.

These strong fibrous bands of ligament tissue hold the wrist bones in place, stabilize its many joints, and connect the various bones to other bones so they can work in unison.

Houston Methodist provides an excellent pocket guide to the anatomy of the wrist if you’d like to learn more about how all the structures work in unison.

A sprained wrist occurs when one or more of the wrist’s ligaments become overly stretched and/or torn. The degree of a sprain injury is described in grades.

What Are The Grades Of A Wrist Sprain? 

Harvard Health Publishing describes the three grades of a wrist sprain:

Grade l – One or more ligaments are slightly stretched or microscopically torn. This is considered a mild sprain.

Grade ll – One or more ligaments are severely stretched and may suffer partial tearing. This is considered a moderate sprain.

Grade lll – One or more ligaments are completely torn, torn away from their bone connection, and/or may have been torn away with a piece of the connective bone attached. This is considered a severe sprain.

How Do You Know If You Have A Sprained Wrist? 

The grades of a sprained wrist may seem fairly straightforward. However, the presence of preexisting conditions and the mechanics of the injury are considerations in determining if you have a sprained wrist and how severely it may be sprained.

Consider the following in determining if you should seek medical advice immediately:  

  • How the injury occurred.
  • Preexisting conditions that may mask or compound your symptoms.

How Do Wrist Sprains Happen? 

The most common causes of ligament sprains to the wrist include circumstances such as the following that bend or twist the wrist past its natural range of motion.

1) Accidents

During accidental trips, slips, and falls, the most common reflex is to put your arms out to catch yourself. This means that the wrist usually takes the first and greatest impact during such incidences.

It also means that the weight of the body or position of the fall can twist or bend your wrist into an unnatural position past its normal range of motion and injure ligaments.

2) Sports

Sprains to the wrist can be the result of routine diving and falling movements commonly seen in sporting activities like baseball, soccer, football, frisbee, skiing, and so forth.

The twisting motion of the wrist in sports like gymnastics, rock climbing, and martial arts leads to a lot of wrist sprains.

According to Drugs.com, wrist and hand injuries account for up to 9% of athletic injuries.

Recreational sporting activities like skydiving and cycling can also result in landing on the wrist from a height and/or speed that can push the wrist past its normal range of motion.

3) Trauma

Blunt force trauma incidences, where an object strikes the wrist, can result in sprains. Such incidences can occur as a baseball hits the wrist instead of the glove or as the wrist strikes the interior of the car during a vehicle accident.

4) Workplace Injuries

Strains and sprains remain the most common workplace injuries, and, according to Ergonomics Plus, around 3% of such injuries are to the wrists.

The most common causes of workplace wrist sprains are from excessive force or repetition during work tasks, poor body mechanics during work tasks, and trapped or caught between injuries that push or pull the wrist beyond its normal range of motion.

5) Exercise

Not properly stretching before exercise can leave the wrist ligaments tight. When weights are picked up, the tightened ligament is more likely to stretch too fast and too far and possibly tear.

6) Other Factors

Previous injuries and existing chronic wrist ailments like arthritis can weaken the ligaments and cause undue stress. So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a big or obvious incident that stretches and/or tears a ligament in your wrist.

An elderly person simply trying to lift themselves from a tub or low seating, for example, can sprain their wrist.

Who’s At Risk For A Sprained Wrist? 

As you can see from how a sprained wrist happens, no one is immune to spraining their wrist. However, certain factors increase the odds of a person suffering a wrist injury.

Some of these include:  

  • Being around high-risk fall areas like slippery, snowy, or wet walkways.
  • Having a health condition or taking a medication that makes you a high-risk for falls.
  • Preexisting medical conditions that deteriorate the strength and mobility of the wrist.
  • A sudden change from a sedentary to an active lifestyle.
  • Participating in impact, twisting, and fall-risk sports and recreational activities.
  • Professions that require frequent or strenuous wrist movements.

What Does A Sprained Wrist Feel Like? 

The symptoms you experience when spraining your wrist will be reflective of the grade of the sprain. Symptoms include:

Mobility & Function Limitations

Mobility describes your range of motion in the wrist. Try to move your wrist up and down and side to side.

The joint will still be fairly stable with a grade one sprain. You will retain function and almost full range of motion.

With a grade ll sprain, the joint will be mild to moderately unstable and suffer some range of motion and function limitations.

The joint will be great to completely unstable with a grade lll sprain, which will result in limited to no wrist mobility and function.

Pain

Grade l sprains may be accompanied by mild pain, grade ll with moderate pain, and grade lll with severe pain.

It’s important, however, to keep in mind that pain is a relative term that will vary based on the suffer’s perception and any other medical conditions present.

A person, for example, already having arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome in their sprained wrist may experience much more pain with a grade l sprain than someone with an otherwise healthy wrist experiencing the same injury.

Weakness

Wrist sprains can cause weakness in the wrist. You may find it difficult to apply pressure with your hand or fingertips, pick up objects, or firmly grip objects.

Numbness

Numbness in the fingers usually isn’t a symptom unless a grade lll sprain results in the lunate bone dislocating.

According to UW Medicine, the lunate bone can become dislocated in if the scapholunate interosseous ligament is torn away from the bone.

The dislodged lunate bone can then compress the nerves in the wrist and cause numbness in the fingers.

Swelling, Bruising, & Tenderness

While the amount of swelling, bruising, and tenderness can also increase in accordance with the grade of injury, it’s important to understand that these symptoms of a wrist sprain are often connected to the severity of the impact injury that causes the sprain, not necessarily the degree of the injury itself.

A hard fall, for example, can cause a bad bruise with significant swelling that doesn’t necessarily severely damage the ligament. Alternatively, such symptoms being present could be indicative of a fracture.

Another consideration is the presence of chronic conditions like arthritis flaring up after an impact to or overuse of the wrist.

Also, keep in mind that non-impact related sprains may not bruise at all since a direct impact wasn’t involved.

The lack of swelling and bruising in such cases doesn’t mean that the strain cannot be a grade lll in severity.

Feeling Of Popping Or Tearing

Grade ll and lll sprains may be accompanied by a tearing sensation upon injury. The stretched ligament not functioning properly can cause it to pop over or catch on a joint during movement, which results in a popping sensation as the wrist is flexed.

How Do I Know If My Wrist Is Sprained Or Broken? 

Dr. Andrew Tyser, an orthopedic surgeon, and hand specialists tell the Health Minute at the University of Utah how to spot the difference between a sprained wrist and a broken wrist and what bone is the most commonly broken in the wrist.

The distal radius, which is the bone on the thumb-side and right above where your wrist bends, is the most commonly broken wrist bone.

Dr. Tyser says that the most common mechanism of breaking the bone is falling on an outstretched hand.

Tyser explains that a fracture is sometimes obvious since there will be a visual deformity in severe breaks.

He goes on to caution that distinguishing a wrist fracture from a sprain isn’t always so obvious since the mechanism of injury and symptoms are so identical.

His advice is that wrist pain, swelling, and mobility that persists or worsens after a few days needs an X-ray to rule out a fracture.

As the American Society for Surgery of the Hand explains, avulsion fractures may occur with grade lll wrist sprains.

These tiny fractures occur when the ligament fully detaches from its connective bone and takes a small piece of the bone with it.

If there’s an obvious deformity or the symptoms do not begin to lessen with 48 hours, Dr. Tyser recommends that you be examined by a medical professional.

If the doctor thinks your injury is beyond a sprained wrist, tests like an X-ray, MRI, and CT scan may be necessary to inspect the ligaments and bones.

What Is The Best Thing To Do For A Sprained Wrist?

Knowing what to do for a sprained wrist within the first few minutes can lessen the immediate symptoms of swelling, pain, and immobility.

It can also expedite the healing and recovery process. RICE is an immediate first aid for a sprained wrist.

Here’s what to do:

R- Rest the ligament and joint for 24-48 hours to prevent further injury.

I- Ice the joint for at least 15 minutes every hour for the first 24 hours.

C- Compress the swelling with a snug-fitting elastic bandage or compression glove to minimize swelling.

E – Elevate the joint above the heart to improve venous return of blood during circulation.

One of the most difficult parts of RICE is in wrapping the wrist securely enough to prevent mobility without it being too tight and cutting off circulation. Use this YouTube Video to learn how to safely wrap your wrist.

RICE often includes taking oral over-the-counter pain medications. Choosing ibuprofen for your pain relief helps minimize swelling since it’s also an anti-inflammatory agent.

What Is The Treatment For A Sprained Wrist?

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, most wrist sprains heal on their own following RICE. Symptoms that persist or worsen after 48 hours usually indicate a fracture and/or grade lll tear.

Non-surgical treatment may be necessary to immobilize the wrist and allow it to heal over the course of a week or longer.

This is most commonly accomplished with a wrist brace or splint. The splinting device prevents you from further damaging the injured ligament and immobilizes the joint so that the ligament can heal itself.

Grade lll tears and even avulsion fractures typically heal on their own without surgery.

If the ligament has shifted too far away from the bone and can’t naturally refuse, surgery may be necessary to reconstruct and reconnect the injured ligament.

What Are The Best Sprained Wrist Braces?

If you need a wrist brace to immobilize your wrist so that the ligament can heal properly, Amazon offers some great products. Here are three favorites based on their reviews and ratings:

1. Wrist Brace By Vive

This ergonomic design supports the wrist and adds compression for pain and inflammation relief. Two adjustable straps allow you to customize the level of support you need for extended wear.

Its breathable neoprene design prevents overheating. Yet, it still retains targeted therapeutic heat to improve circulation at the wrist. Check the prices for the Wrist Brace by VIVE on Amazon.

2. Dr. Arthritis

The Premium Copper Lined Wrist Support is one of the many joint products made by Dr. Arthritis.

It’s accompanied by a complimentary handbook with information on common wrist conditions.

The brace is copper-lined, and it features a Velcro strap system to provide non-slip support. Check the prices of Dr. Arthritis Wrist Brace on Amazon.

3. Neo-G

The Neo-G Airflow Wrist & Thumb Support features a flexible, snug, and breathable fit. Construction is with medical-grade materials.

The slimline design fits further up the thumb to provide extra support and comfort. Universal fit means it can be worn on either hand and fits most hand sizes. Check the prices of Neo-G Wrist Brace on Amazon.

When Will I Feel Better After a Wrist Sprain?

The recovery time will depend on how severe the tear is to the ligament. Symptoms from minor sprains are usually mostly subsided after the initial 48 hours, and the resulting stiffness and soreness go away as you begin to move around again.

More severe wrist sprains, however, can take weeks of immobility for the ligament to have time to properly heal, and this can leave behind significant stiffness and soreness that needs to be addressed by rehabbing the wrist for several weeks.

Do I Need To Rehab My Sprained Wrist?

Since a key area of treatment for a sprained wrist is resting it until it’s fully healed, it and the surrounding joints, tendons, and muscles will become stiff and lose some degree of flexibility.

This is especially true if you’ve needed to wear a wrist brace for a couple of weeks. If you’ve had to have your ligament surgically repaired, you’ll also need rehab once you’ve been cleared by your doctor.

Your doctor may give you a referral to see a sports medicine therapist, occupational therapist, or other such professional for rehab.

If you haven’t needed a doctor’s care, you’ll need to learn some exercises to improve your wrist strength and flexibility on your own.

How Do I Rehab My Sprained Wrist?

Begin with pain-free gentle range-of-motion exercises that take the wrist through flexion, extension, and side-to-side movements.

It’s important to let pain be your guide when it comes to how soon you start and move through rehabbing your sprain. Movements may be difficult, but they should never be painful.

Medline Plus offers the ball drill to build wrist mobility and strength:

Step One

Warm up and stretch your wrist by applying a warm washcloth for a few minutes, gently bending each finger toward the wrist several times, and then rotating and stretching the wrist in all directions.

Step Two

Grasp a rubber ball with your palm-up hand. Keeping your wrist and hand still, use your fingers to squeeze the ball for 30 seconds. Release and repeat the ball drill 20 times per day.

Sports MD recommends adding advanced strengthening exercises using resistance to strengthen the muscles surrounding the injured ligament once you’re able to complete regular range of motion wrist exercise fully and without pain.

A simple resistance band can be used to add this element as you go through extension, flexion, and side-to-side wrist movements.

How Long Is The Recovery Time From A Sprained Wrist?

Minor tears can repair in mere days with proper RICE. More significant sprains can take two weeks to two months to properly heal.

The degree of injury, overall health, speed and accuracy of treatment will all play a role in how quickly a sprain heals and rehabs.

Your rehabbing efforts should be continued until the wrist’s mobility is fully restored and day-to-day activities can be completed without pain.

How Can I Prevent Sprained Wrists?

Keep your wrists strong. If you suffer frequent wrist sprains, find your wrist giving out on you frequently, or have other chronic diseases affecting the health of your wrists, you can use the same rehabbing wrist exercises to keep your wrist strong, flexible, and less prone to injury.

Those that are at a risk of falls should learn how to fall without the natural inclination to outstretch the arm. When you feel yourself falling, tuck your arms and head in and roll into the fall.

Wear appropriate, recommended safety gear during sports and professional activities. These will help support and protect your joints and soft tissues from impact and mechanical injuries.

Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider anytime you think you’ve suffered a wrist injury.

While most minor sprain injuries heal with RICE, a common mistake is resuming normal activities too soon or ignoring the pain of a minor injury.

By doing this, a microscopic tear can quickly become a need for surgical intervention.

There you have your complete guide to preventing, identifying, treating, and rehabbing a wrist sprain.

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