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What is a sprain and what to do if it happens?

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    Sprains are one of the most common ligament injuries and can occur in many joint areas of the body. This type of tear often occurs from simple actions such as taking a misstep, tripping over an object, or applying more torsion than usual to the shoulder, hand, or ankle (to name a few examples).

    Depending on the severity of the sprain, either conservative or surgical solutions will be sought to repair the damage. In this post, we will explain in simple language what a sprain is, how they are classified, which areas are most susceptible, and what actions to take if it happens to you.

    What is a sprain?

    A sprain is a tear or rupture of the ligaments that connect bones and provide stability to the joints. Ligaments are a key component in keeping bones in place, as they are composed of fibrous, flexible, and highly resistant connective tissue.

    When ligaments are subjected to excessive or forced stretching, their tissues can tear, resulting in a partial or complete rupture of the ligament. Sprains are classified into three grades:

    Grade 1 sprain: Mild stretching of the ligament (no tear).

    Grade 2 sprain: Moderate stretching with partial ligament tear.

    Grade 3 sprain: Severe stretching with total rupture of the ligament tissue.

    Types of sprains

    Ligaments are found throughout the human body, uniting different bone structures and keeping them stable. Here are some ligaments and body parts that are most susceptible to sprains:

    Knee sprain

    Each knee has four ligaments: the anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, and lateral collateral ligament, which connect and stabilize the femur bone with the tibia bone. Knee sprains are a common sports injury, with the lateral ligaments being primarily affected.

    Shoulder sprain

    The shoulder is composed of multiple ligaments, such as the transverse humeral ligament, coracohumeral ligament, acromioclavicular ligament, coracoacromial ligament, coracoclavicular ligament, and glenohumeral ligament. Due to their complex joint systems and a wide range of motion, shoulders are prone to tears.

    Wrist sprain

    Wrist sprains often occur after a fall, as the ligaments experience sudden stretching that compromises the integrity of the connective tissue. Fortunately, most cases of wrist sprains are mild and do not require surgery.

    Cervical sprain

    Cervical sprains typically result from whiplash caused by sudden and forceful movements, injuring various structures in the neck, including the ligaments that connect the cervical vertebrae.

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    Elbow sprain

    This injury can affect one or more of the ligaments that connect the arm bones to the elbow joint. The main causes of an elbow sprain are falls with an extended arm, overloading during sports activities, and demanding occupational tasks involving repetitive elbow movements.

    Lumbar sprain

    Lumbar sprains limit the mobility of the middle part of the back. Like other sprains, lumbar sprains occur due to excessive stretching of the ligaments in the lumbar vertebrae.

    Ankle sprain

    Ankle sprains often result from a sudden twist of the foot, causing the ankle to bend or twist unnaturally. This injury can occur when walking or running on unstable surfaces, falling after jumping or descending stairs, or getting stepped on, among other causes.

    Hip sprain

    Among the most common hip injuries are fractures, dislocations, and sprains, mainly caused by a fall. The ligaments surrounding the hip structures provide better stability, but when subjected to a sudden pull, they can tear, leading to bothersome and limiting symptoms.

    Symptoms of a sprain

    Signs indicating the presence of a sprain include:

    Pain (joint or muscle).


    Stiffness or limitation in moving the injured joint.


    What to do if I have a sprain?

    Although many sprains are usually mild, some cases can be more complex. Sprains require immediate medical attention after the injury occurs to accurately diagnose the condition, rule out other problems, and establish an effective treatment plan to prevent complications.

    While waiting to see a doctor, you can take the following actions:

    Apply ice to the affected area to reduce inflammation.

    Immobilize the joint area with a bandage or splint.

    Keep the injured part elevated.

    Rest the joint for several days.

    Avoid putting weight on the injury or making sudden movements.


    The doctor will ask how the injury occurred and inquire about the symptoms. They will then perform a physical examination to assess the present signs such as bruising, swelling, tenderness, and joint limitation. In cases like this, joint ultrasound can also be used to verify the integrity of the ligaments and joint fluid.

    The specialist may request an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI to support the diagnosis and ensure there are no bone fractures or additional problems.

    Treatments for sprains

    The treatment for a sprain will vary depending on the location and severity of the injury. Initially, the goal is to reduce inflammation and manage pain. The R.I.C.E method (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) is recommended along with pain-relieving medication.

    After a couple of days, the patient should experience an improvement in symptoms and gradually regain movement without pain. Depending on the type of sprain, recovery may take weeks or months.

    Surgery is an option to consider when the ligament has suffered a complete tear and internal repair of the tear is required. Additionally, the use of immobilizers and physiotherapy are common conservative treatments, tailored to the individual needs of each patient.

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