Sprains and strains
Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.
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 cannot put weight on the injury or use it normally
- you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own
Is it a sprain or a strain?
For the first couple of days, follow the 4 steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:
- Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
- Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
- Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.
- Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.
To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat (such as hot baths and heat packs), alcohol and 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 does not become stiff.
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.
But you should not 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 2 weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better.
Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there's a risk of further damage.
Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.
Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle.
Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.
Urgent advice: Get advice from 111 now if:
- the injury is not feeling any better after treating it yourself
- the pain or swelling is getting worse
- you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery – this could be an infection
111 will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.
Other ways to get help
Go to an urgent treatment centre
Urgent treatment centres are places you can go if you need to see someone now.
They're also called walk-in centres or minor injuries units.
You may be seen quicker than you would at A&E.
Treatment at a minor injuries unit
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.
If you have a sprain or strain that's taking longer than usual to get better, your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.
Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.
Immediate action required: Go to A&E 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.