A wrist sprain is a common injury for all sorts of athletes. All it takes is a momentary loss of balance. As you slip, you automatically stick your hand out to break your fall. But once your hand hits the ground, the force of impact bends it back toward your forearm. This can stretch the ligaments that connect the wrist and hand bones a little too far. The result is tiny tears or -- even worse -- a complete break to the ligament.
While falls cause a lot of wrist sprains, you can also get them by:
- Being hit in the wrist.
- Exerting extreme pressure on the wrist or twisting it
Wrist sprains are common in:
- Basketball players
- Baseball players
- Skiers, especially when they fall while still holding a pole
- Inline skaters
Wrist sprains also can happen to anyone who takes a fall or gets hit on the wrist.
What Does a Wrist Sprain Feel Like?
Symptoms of a wrist sprain are:
- Tenderness and warmth around the injury
- Feeling a popping or tearing in the wrist
- Loss of motion
To diagnose a wrist sprain, your doctor will give you a thorough physical exam. You might also need an:
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
- Arthrogram, a special type of X-ray or MRI done after a dye is injected into the wrist
- Arthroscopy, a minimally invasive surgery in which a tiny camera is inserted into the wrist
Sprains are usually divided into three grades:
- Grade I: Pain with minor damage to the ligament
- Grade II: Pain, more severe ligament damage, a feeling of looseness to the joint, and some loss of function
- Grade III: Pain, a completely torn ligament, severe looseness of the joint, and loss of function
What's the Treatment for a Wrist Sprain?
While they can bench you for a while, the good news is that minor-to-moderate wrist sprains should heal on their own. They just need a little time. To speed the healing, you can:
- Rest your wrist for at least 48 hours.
- Ice your wrist to reduce pain and swelling. Do it for 20-30 minutes every three to four hours for two to three days, or until the pain is gone.
- Compress the wrist with a bandage.
- Elevate your wrist above your heart, on a pillow or the back of a chair. as often as you can.
- Take anti-inflammatory painkillers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like Advil, Aleve, or Motrin, will help with pain and swelling. However, these drugs can have side effects, like an increased risk of bleeding and ulcers. They should be used only occasionally, unless your doctor specifically says otherwise.
- Use a cast or splint to keep your wrist immobile. This should only be for a short time, until you see the doctor. Then follow the doctor’s advice about whether or not to continue using a splint. Using a splint for too long can result in more stiffness and muscle weakness in some cases.
- Practice stretching and strengthening exercises if your doctor recommends them. It is best if you see a physical or occupational therapist to guide a program specific to your condition.
More severe Grade III wrist sprains, in which the ligament is snapped, may require surgery to repair.
When Will I Feel Better After a Wrist Sprain?
Recovery time depends on how serious your wrist sprain is, it is typically when you can move your elbow, wrist, and hand through a full range of motion without pain.
These injuries may take from two to 10 weeks to heal. But that's a rough estimate. Everyone heals at a different rate, but generally, the time to heal depends on the grade of sprain and proper management. Grade1 typically takes 2-4 weeks as opposed to grade 3 which may take as long as 3-6 months.
While you heal, you might want to take up a new activity that won't irritate your wrist. For instance, skiers could put down their poles and try jogging or stationary biking.
Whatever you do, don't rush things. Do not try to return to your old level of physical activity until:
- You feel no pain in your wrist when it's at rest
- You can work out and grip and move objects -- like a ski pole, bat, or racket -- without pain
- Your injured wrist, as well as the hand and arm on that side, feel as strong as the uninjured wrist, hand, and arm.
If you start using your wrist before it's healed, you could cause permanent damage.
How Can I Prevent a Wrist Sprain?
Wrist sprains are hard to prevent, since they're usually caused by accidents. Even the best-trained athlete can slip. But always make an effort to exercise safely.
Some athletes benefit from using wrist guards or tape. These may prevent the wrist from bending backward during a fall.