A wrist sprain is a common injury that occurs when the ligaments in the wrist are stretched or torn. This can happen from a fall onto an outstretched hand or from twisting the wrist. While wrist sprains range in severity, most people can expect their sprained wrist to heal within 6-8 weeks with proper treatment.
What Is a Wrist Sprain?
A sprain occurs when the ligaments that connect bones together are stretched or torn. Ligaments provide stability and support to joints.
The wrist is made up of multiple small bones and joints. On the thumb side of the wrist are the scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum and pisiform bones. On the pinky side are the trapezium, trapezoid, capitate and hamate bones.
These bones are connected by ligaments. A fall or twist can cause the ligaments on the thumb side or pinky side to become injured. This is called a wrist sprain. The severity depends on how many ligaments are affected and how badly they are stretched or torn.
Signs and Symptoms
Common symptoms of a wrist sprain include:
- Pain in the wrist, especially when moving it
- Stiffness in the wrist
- Weak grip strength
Often one or both sides of the wrist focus the pain, depending on which ligaments were injured. Subsequently, the amount of pain and disability to use the wrist helps determine the sprain’s severity.
Causes and Risk Factors
Wrist sprains most often occur due to:
- Falling onto an outstretched hand – This sudden impact sprains the ligaments as they absorb force.
- Twisting the wrist – Sports like racquetball, tennis, and golf often lead to wrist sprains. The rapid back and forth motions twist the wrist beyond its normal range.
- Lifting heavy objects – Also, lifting too much weight can sprain ligaments.
Activities involving repetitive wrist motions or vibrations also increase risk. Weak muscles and a previous wrist injury make a person more prone to sprains.
Grades of Wrist Sprain
Wrist sprains are categorized into grades 1, 2 and 3:
- Grade 1 (Mild) – The ligament is slightly stretched but still intact. There is mild pain, swelling, and stiffness. Function is usually preserved.
- Grade 2 (Moderate) – The ligament fibers are partially torn. There is more significant pain, swelling, bruising and reduced wrist function.
- Grade 3 (Severe) – This is a complete tear of the ligament. Pain and swelling are greatest with this grade. The wrist has major loss of function and instability.
Knowing the grade of sprain helps guide treatment and predict healing time. An X-ray or MRI can confirm the grade if the severity is unclear.
Treatment and Healing Time
The RICE method is used initially to treat all grades of wrist sprain:
- Rest – Avoid activities that aggravate the injured wrist. Using a brace can also help rest the ligaments.
- Ice – Apply ice packs wrapped in a thin towel several times per day. This helps minimize pain and swelling.
- Compression – Wrapping an elastic bandage around the injured wrist compresses swelling.
- Elevation – Keeping the sprained wrist propped up above heart level reduces blood flow and swelling.
Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories help relieve discomfort. Afterward, after the first few days of acute treatment, rehabilitation exercises should begin. Subsequently, stretching and strengthening the wrist prevents stiffness and aids healing
The overall recovery timeline depends on sprain severity:
- Grade 1 – Heals within 3-6 weeks. A brace may be worn if needed for comfort when returning to activities after 1-2 weeks.
- Grade 2 – Heals within 4-8 weeks. Wrist bracing and therapy can be after the first week to improve function. Light activity can often resume by 4 weeks.
- Grade 3 – Heals within 8-12 weeks. These severe sprains may need cast immobilization for 4-6 weeks. Hand therapy then improves strength and range of motion. Full recovery takes about 3 months.
Severe sprains occasionally require surgery if ligaments do not heal with conservative treatment. Following the doctor’s treatment plan closely ensures the fastest recovery.
To help prevent a repeat wrist sprain:
- Wear protective braces when playing sports that require quick wrist movements.
- Tape or brace the wrist for extra support when doing activities involving heavy lifting.
- Strengthen the wrist and forearm with exercise.
- Warm up the wrist properly before sports or strenuous use.
- Use proper technique if lifting heavy objects. Avoid awkward positions.
- Take breaks when repetitive wrist motions are for work.
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Avoiding falls and trauma to the wrist also helps prevent injury. With prompt treatment and rehab, most people fully recover from a wrist sprain within 2 months. Being patient during the healing process can prevent re-injury.