Although common, sprained wrists are often misunderstood. Proper diagnosis and treatment can be difficult. Let’s take an in-depth look at how to identify and then properly heal your wrist sprain.

What is a Sprained Wrist?

The bones in your wrist are connected to each other by ligaments. If any of those ligaments become injured, your ability to move your wrist will be impaired. Wrist sprains are a common injury which can range from a mild annoyance to overwhelming pain.

Wrist sprains are graded by severity. Grade one sprains are the mildest. They involve a ligament which is stretched but not otherwise torn. Grade two sprains are both stretched and slightly torn. Finally, Grade three sprains are the most serious. This type of sprain involves not just a tear but also an avulsion fracture, which is a condition where bone fragments actually pull away from the ligament.

What Causes Wrist Sprains?

hand wrist pain

One reason sprains are so common is because they’re caused in a variety of ways. Any impact which bends the wrist too far forward or backward can cause a sprain. Almost all wrist sprains are the result of a sudden injury rather than repetitive stress.

Gradual, slowly-developing wrist pain is usually not a sprain. Instead, this type of wrist pain is often caused by a repetitive strain injury. Common culprits include tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Wrist sprains are usually more sudden and, well, obvious. If you sprain your wrist, you’ll likely feel it immediately. More often than not, the cause will also be obviously apparent. There will be an instant flash of pain. You might also see visible swelling or even hear an alarming popping noise.

A Closer Look at Ligaments

Think of ligaments like a piece of tape or rope. They connect bones to other bones. They’re similar in structure to tendons, which connect bones to muscles.

Most wrist sprains involve the scapho-lunate ligament. Normally, this attaches the scaphoid bone to the lunate bone. These are two small bones in the wrist. While the wrist actually has a few different ligaments, the scapho-lunate ligament is most likely to be stretched or torn in a fall.   

Diagnosing a Wrist Sprain

All wrist sprains should be checked out by a doctor. Even if the sprain feels mild, a medical evaluation helps improve recuperation time while also preventing long-term damage. A sprain doesn’t have to be exceptionally painful to result in persistent problems. A doctor will look for swelling, bruising and mobility impairment.

As part of the diagnostic process, your doctor will ask about your “wrist history.” How did the injury occur? Has this wrist been injured before? Prior instances of injury will often require a more extensive level of treatment.

A sprained wrist will have pain during movement. You might also feel an especially tender spot on your wrist. This is the specific spot where the ligament is damaged. Other symptoms of a sprain include swelling and bruising.

Aside from a visual inspection, your doctor might also order an X-ray or an MRI scan. This “inside look” lets the doctor determine whether your wrist is sprained or broken. A broken wrist will require more extensive care.    

Treatment for Sprained Wrists

injured wrist with compression

Sprained wrist treatment will vary based on the severity of the injury. Mild sprains can be treated at home but more serious issues will need in-office or even hospital treatment. Generally, the earlier your wrist can be examined and diagnosed, the easier treatment will be. Failure to see a doctor relatively quickly can result in an increased risk of persistent and even permanent wrist problems.    

Fortunately, the vast majority of wrist injuries can be effectively treated relatively easily. For milder sprains, most doctors recommend the PRICE principle. This treatment plan consists of

  • Protection – Be careful to avoid additional wrist injuries
  • Rest – Avoid excessive use of the injured wrist
  • Ice – Regular application of an ice pack helps reduce pain and swelling
  • Compression – A wrist support or splint allows for quicker, more constructive healing
  • Elevation – Keep the injured area raised as much as possible

Consistency is key. Apply the PRICE techniques until your wrist is completely free from pain. In more serious cases, you’ll need clearance from your doctor before resuming normal use of your wrist.

Wrist support braces and splints are available at most retail stores. Your doctor might also provide you with one. Wear the support item as instructed and be sure to keep it on for the appropriate length of time. Many people remove their wrist brace too early. Even when the pain initially subsides, continue wearing the brace for a while. The support helps the injury heal thoroughly.

cold ice on hand

Use cold therapy frequently. Apply ice or a cold pack to the wrist in order to reduce pain and swelling. You’ll want to refresh the cold therapy about every two hours to help ensure the lowest possible temperatures. Many people secure the cold item directly to their wrist to free up their hands and increase general mobility.

Aside from cold, you’ll also want to keep the wrist wrapped in a compression support. Even a simple wrap or bandage will usually work well. Note that you should only wear the compression device for 10 minutes at a time. Too much compression, for too long, can restrict blood flow in your hand and arm.

Keep your wrist elevated as much as possible. You don’t have to raise your wrist over your head or anything drastic. Just keep your wrist above your heart. This can be as simple as resting your wrist on a pillow placed on your desk. Regular elevation helps reduce swelling by allowing fluids to drain.  

Advanced Treatment Options for Severe Sprains

wrist pain

PRICE treatments will work well for most mild and moderate sprains, but major sprains often require more extensive care. Rehabilitation and recovery from a severe write sprint will be conducted under the supervision of a doctor.

Some sprains require total immobilization for an average of two weeks. This allows the ligament to heal while avoiding additional damage. Note that your wrist will likely feel very stiff after not moving for two weeks. Once the splint is removed, you’ll need to engage in physical rehabilitation therapies.

Wrist injury rehab typically involves movement and stretching. In most cases your doctor will show you what to do so you can perform the exercises at home. However, more serious issues might require that you visit the office of a physical therapist for supervised rehabilitation.

Another option is surgery, which is usually necessary when the wrist is fully ruptured or fractured. Typically, surgery is used to re-attach the ligament to the bone. Fractures are fixed with wires or pins. Treatment often involves the use of a cast for four to six weeks. Once the cast is removed, rehabilitation will be required to rebuild lost strength and mobility.   

Common Causes of Wrist Sprains

Any actions which cause the wrist to bend backward can result in a sprain. Falls are the most common cause. If a person falls and sticks their hand out to catch themselves, the impact can result in a sprain or even a fracture.

Be careful when playing sports or engaging in other athletic activities. Collisions and accidents on the field can result in wrist sprains. But even solo sports have risks. Falling while riding a bicycle or jogging can also result in a sprain.

How to Prevent Wrist Sprains

Wrist protection

There’s no perfect way to prevent sprains. But there are a few techniques which can help reduce their likelihood.

First, you’ll want to wear proper protection when playing sports or otherwise engaging in “wrist risky” activities. Wrist guards and wrist splints are designed to protect against impacts. They’re ideal for contact sports. You can also wrap your hands and wrist with athletic tape. This is the preferred procedures for solo spots like weightlifting and diving.  

Also, gently stretch your wrists and arms before activity. Limber muscles and ligaments are less prone to injury. Wrist and arm rotations help warm up muscles and tendons while also increasing blood flow.

Finally, you’ll want to learn the correct way to fall. Although difficult at first, try to avoid the instinctual response of sticking your arm out to stop your fall. Instead, tuck your arms and roll into the fall. This helps distribute the force of the impact evenly across your upper body. The idea is to reduce direct force on your wrist.

Final Thoughts

Whether minor or major, sprained wrists are certainly no fun.  But the sooner a sprain is diagnosed, the quicker relief will be available. Don’t let a sprain impact your mobility or your ability to stay active. Proper precautions and treatment can reverse the damage of a sprain. Here’s to healthy, pain-free wrists

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