Sprain: Definition, Symptoms & Recovery

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

There's often a lot of confusion about sprains and strains. What is the difference? Read this lesson to learn all about sprains, including how they differ, what the symptoms look like, and how to recover from one.

Definition of a Sprain

Have you ever sprained a part of your body? Or, maybe it was a strain. Wait, what's the difference? Let's take a look. A sprain affects ligaments in your body. Ligaments are rubber band-like pieces that connect your bones together and hold joints in place (for example, your knees have ligaments keeping all working parts in order and properly organized). When you sprain a part of your body, parts of the ligaments have torn apart or over stretched (ouch!), and the most common places that suffer sprains are knees and ankles. Unfortunately, sprains are painful and usually include some amount of swelling too. In contrast, a strain is the over-stretching or tearing of a muscle or a tendon, so a strain is different from a sprain.

Sprain Symptoms

Now that we've cleared up the confusion over what a sprain actually is, let's look at the symptoms we'll have when one occurs. A person will typically experience five symptoms after spraining something:

  • Pain!
  • Swelling
  • Visible bruising
  • Limited mobility of the area (have you ever tried to walk on a sprained ankle?)
  • Sometimes, there is an audible 'popping' sound at the moment of the injury

Symptoms of a sprain include bruising and swelling
sprained foot

Treatment Options

A sprain in considered serious when you can't walk without severe pain, you can't move the area at all, or the area is numb after the injury. In these scenarios, it's best to seek prompt medical attention because the injury may be worse than a sprain.

If the sprain is mild, however, you can treat it right at home. There is a pretty well-known formula for treating various sprains, depending on the severity of the injury: R.I.C.E. Lets explore each individual letter to see what they mean.

R: Rest

Immobilize the affected area the best you can for at least 48 hours. If the sprain occurred in the ankle or knee, this includes not putting your full body weight on the area until it has a chance to begin healing. However, while you're resting the injured area, you should still try to do some light exercises using the 'healthy' limbs so that the blood continues to circulate.

I: Ice

Apply an ice pack on the affected area for 15-20 minutes, 4-8 times each day for 2 days. To avoid further damage, don't place ice directly onto the skin.

C: Compression

Use a bandage or wrap to put pressure on the injured area.

E: Elevate

Try to keep the injured area above the level of your heart. This prevents swelling.

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