Sprains and Strains

Sprains and Strains 

Sprains and strains affect the muscles and ligaments. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue around joints that help keep the bones together and stable. 

Most sprains and strains heal within a few weeks. A severe sprain may look and feel like a break (fracture), you should see a doctor or nurse if you suspect that you have a fracture or other more serious injury.

Symptoms of sprains and strains include:

  • pain
  • swelling and inflammation
  • loss of movement in the affected body part

A sprain occurs when one or more of your ligaments have been stretched, twisted, or torn, usually as a result of excessive force being applied to a joint. 

Common symptoms of a sprain include:

  • pain around the affected joint
  • being unable to use the joint normally or being unable to put weight on it
  • bruising
  • tenderness
  • swelling
  • inflammation

The swelling from a sprain will often occur soon after the injury. However, the bruising may not show until sometime later or it may not show at all. Bruising can sometimes occur some distance from the affected joint, as blood from the damaged tissue seeps along the muscles and around the joint before coming close to the skin. 

A strain occurs when the muscle fibres stretch or tear. They usually occur for one of two reasons:

  • when the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits
  • when the muscle has been forced to contract (shorten too quickly)

Strains can develop as the result of an accident, or during physical or sporting activities, such as running or playing football.

The symptoms of a muscle strain will depend on how severe the injury is. Symptoms can include:

  • pain in the affected muscle
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • muscle spasms (when the muscles contract tightly and painfully)
  • loss of some, or all, of the function in the affected muscle
  • blood collecting under the skin at the site of the strain - this is known as a haematoma and it looks like a large, dark-red bruise 


Most people with sprains and strains do not need to have X-rays. However, your doctor may recommend that you have an X-ray if:

  • you are unable to put any weight on your ankle, foot or leg
  • there is tenderness of the bones at specific points on your ankle, foot or leg
  • you have difficult moving your knee

Once you know you do not have a more serious injury, most mild to moderate sprains and strains can be treated at home using a self-care techniques called PRICE therapy, and by avoiding HARM. 


PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation. Advice relating to each of these areas is outlined below. 

  • Protection - protect the injured area from further injury - for example, by using a support or, in the case of an ankle injury, wearing shoes that enclose and support your feet, such as lace-ups.
  • Rest - stop the activity that caused the injury, and rest the injured joint or muscle. Avoid activity for the first 48 to 72 hours after injuring yourself. Your GP may recommend that you use crutches.
  • Ice - for the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury, apply ice wrapped in a damp towel to the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes every two to three hours during the day. Do not leave the ice on while you are asleep, and do not allow the ice to touch your skin directly because it could cause a cold burn.
  • Compression - compress or bandage the injured area to limit any swelling and movement that could damage it further. You can use a crepe bandage, a simple elastic bandage, or an elasticated tubular bandage. It should be wrapped snugly around the affected area but it should not be too tight. Remove the bandage before you go to sleep.
  • Elevation - keep the injured area raised and supported on a pillow to help reduce the swelling. If your leg is injured, avoid having long periods of time where your leg is not raised.

Avoiding HARM

For the first 72 hours after a sprain or muscle strain you should avoid HARM. This means that you should avoid: 

  • Heat - such as hot baths, saunas or heat packs (applying a controlled amount of heat to affected joints)
  • Alcohol - drinking alcohol will increase bleeding and swelling and decrease healing
  • Running - or any other form of exercise that could cause more damage
  • Massage - which may increase bleeding and swelling 

More information 

Sprains and Strains 

Sports injuries