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sprains, first aid

A sprain is an injury that affects a ligament, a muscle, or a tendon. The sprain occurs when the ligament, muscle or tendon is extended beyond a greater range than normal for a particular joint. Ligaments are most often involved in sprain injuries.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
Symptoms of a sprain include:
  • joint pain
  • swelling
  • fluid within the joint (effusion)
  • bruising
  • changing colour of the skin
  • decreased range of motion of the joint

What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
Since sprains result from the movement of a joint into an unnatural position, sports and daily activities such as walking are the most common causes. Sprains can also occur as a result of industrial injuries and motor vehicle accidents.

What can be done to prevent the injury? 
To prevent sprains, individuals should wear the proper safety equipment for all activities at all times. For instance, when playing sports, persons should wear the required clothing and protective gear. Everyone should wear a seat belt at all times when in a moving vehicle. When hiking or participating in other activities involving walking or running, people should wear the proper shoes or boots. Finally, individuals should never push to the point of exhaustion during any activity. Alcohol or drugs should be avoided when a person is driving, operating machinery, or playing sports.

How is the injury recognised? 
The injured area is usually examined and checked for slackness that will occur in a sprained joint. Most doctors diagnose sprains with an x-ray to rule out fractures.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
Apply the RICE technique: Rest, Ice, Compression and Immobilisation, and Elevation.
  • Restrict movement and weight-bearing in the injured area. A splint or crutches can be used if necessary.
  • Avoid activities that can further injure or cause more pain to this Area.
  • Apply cold compresses to the area.
  • Place a bandage lightly around the injured area. Do not wrap it too tightly. This will help decrease the amount of swelling.
  • Elevate the injured area above the heart if possible.
  • Take anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin to relieve the pain and swelling.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Placing the sprained joint in warm water rather than applying ice will cause extreme swelling and increase the amount of pain due to the sprain. Another common side effect comes from placing a bandage or other constricting device too tightly around the sprain. This can cut off circulation to the injured area and areas away from the injury.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
Most sprain injuries take from 4 to 6 weeks to heal. It is important to allow these areas to heal fully and properly before going back to usual activities. It is also important that the sprained area be protected for several months after the injury, since there will be some weakness. Problems may worsen if the injured area is not protected or if activity is resumed too soon after the injury.

Author: James Broomfield, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne

Last Updated: 21/10/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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