So You Sprained Something, Now What?
First of all, lets understand what exactly a sprain is and what it is not.
What Is a Sprain?
A sprain is an injury to the ligaments - tough bands of fibrous tissue that hold bones together at the joint - that can be accompanied by pain, swelling, and limited functioning of the affected joint. The ligament can be overstretched, partially torn, or in the worst case fully torn. This is different from a muscle strain, in which the fibers of a muscle or tendon are overstretched or torn.
• Pain near affected joint
• Limited movement of the affected joint
• A loud pop sometimes occurs at the time of injury, coming from the joint.
Sprains are most common in the smaller, mobile joints of the body like the fingers, toes, ankles, wrists, and knees. They usually occur when a joint is stressed quickly and suddenly without proper support. For example, jumping and landing unevenly on your foot can cause the foot to twist and put a large amount of tension on a ligament, causing an injury.
3 Grades of Sprains:
• Grade 1: mild tear with some pain and swelling. Movement is usually uncomfortable and only slightly limited
• Grade 2: more severe partial tear with significant pain and swelling. Movement will be significantly limited and uncomfortable.
• Grade 3: complete tear of the ligament with extreme pain and swelling. Movement will be almost if not entirely limited.
What should you do after you sprain a ligament?
Should you see a doctor?
If it is Grade 2, consider seeing a doctor to rule out fractures and ensure proper support for the healing process. If it is grade 3, immediately see a doctor. Here are 3 things to look out for that should demand a visit to the doctor:
⁃ If you can’t move or put weight on the affected joint
⁃ If you have a feeling of pain in or directly on a bone
⁃ If you have numbness, tingling, or other neurological symptoms around the injury
If it is a mild sprain and you don’t have any of the symptoms mentioned above, you can likely treat this at home.
For the first 2-3 days, or up to a week in some cases.
It is essential to allow the initial healing process to take place with as little disruption as possible. For the first 2-3 days with a mild moderate sprain, and up to a week or so with a more sever sprain, you should try to avoid stressing the sprain as completely as possible. This might mean avoiding certain exercise or activities for a few days, but it is worth it in the long term to make sure your sprain injury heals properly.
Ice, Compression, Elevation
Use Ice, Compression, and Elevation of the affected joint (above the heart) to deal with pain and inflammation immediately following your injury. This will allow the initial healing process to proceed effectively while reducing the negative impact of excess inflammation and pain. Do this until a you have significant reduction in pain and swelling.
After the initial healing process, when pain and swelling has reduced considerably, you can start moving the joint around again. Continue to avoid clearly painful positions/movements, and avoid heavy weight bearing. After you have been able to move around without sharp pains for a while you can move on to fully rehabilitating the joint.
Rehabilitate the joint to full function
Once the ligament has formed scar tissue and strengthened itself enough to be used again, you will want to take further steps to make sure you regain full functionality in the joint, and avoid complications down the road. This is where a physical therapist, massage therapist, or other trained expert can help. You will know when you can start this process when the pain of the original injury has subsided, and in its place you might feel discomfort or a duller pain with movement.
At this stage you will want to strengthen the ligament, break down excess scar tissue (as this can limit flexibility in the joint), and stimulate blood flow in the area to keep the healing process going. It is possible to heal enough that you no longer have pain, and are able to do your daily activities, yet still have a weakened ligament due to the injury. That is why this step is essential to ensure long term health of the affected joint. It is best to work with a trained medical professional to determine the best way to accomplish this without causing more damage. Exercise and stretches will strengthen and stimulate the ligament. Massage therapy helps to break down scar tissue and ensure full range of motion in and around the joint.
Ligaments don’t have a lot of blood supply, so healing takes longer than most other tissues in the body. Be patient and avoid re-injuring the area so you can make a full recovery and avoid having further problems with that joint in the future.