Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles 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 or tenderness 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
Is it a sprain or a strain?
Sprains Strains
Torn or twisted ligament (tissue that connects the joints) Overstretched or torn muscle (also known as a pulled muscle)
Most common in: wrists, ankles, thumbs, knees 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 - try not to put weight on it and stop any exercise or activities
  2. Ice - apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a teatowel) 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 - as much as possible keep it raised on a pillow

To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat, such as hot baths and heat packs, alcohol and getting 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.

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.

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.

How long it takes for a sprain or strain to heal

  • After two weeks: most sprains and strains will feel better.
  • Up to 8 weeks: avoid strenuous exercise such as running, as there’s a risk of further damage.

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

Go to a minor injuries unit or a GP if:

  • the injury isn’t feeling any better within a few days
  • you’re still in a lot of pain and can’t put weight on the injured joint
  • you can’t move the joint or muscle
  • the injury is numb, discoloured or cold to touch

Treatment from your GP

Your GP may prescribe a stronger painkiller or cream or gel to bring down the swelling.

For severe sprains and strains, your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist. You may also choose to book appointments privately.

Go to A&E or call 999 if:

  • you heard a crack when you had your injury
  • the pain is severe
  • the injured body part has changed shape
  • you feel dizzy or sick

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

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.

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