Wrist + Ankle Sprains: Care and Prevention

Wrist and ankles are more likely to get sprained. That’s why it’s important to care for sprains right away and prevent them from happening.

We don’t tend to think too much about our humble yet hardworking wrists and ankles—until the “ouch” factor happens! You may have sprained these areas by slipping and putting your hands out to break your fall, tripping while wearing high heels, or running into a teammate while playing sports.

A sprain is an injury caused by ligaments overstretching or tearing. (Ligaments are the fibrous tissues that connect the bones together in a joint.) Telltale signs that you’ve sprained your wrist or ankle are pain, swelling, restricted movement in the area, a popping sensation in the joint, and/or bruising.(1) Sprains can range from mild to severe.(2) Mild sprains can often be cared for at home. Severe sprains require treatment by a doctor.

Because of their structure and location, wrists and ankles are prone to getting sprained. In fact, ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries that doctors see.(3) On average, sprains take about 6 weeks to heal—that is, if they’re properly treated. If sprains don’t get the care they need, long-term issues can develop, which can also require more invasive treatment later on.(2,4)

So when can you care for a sprain at home…and when is it time to hotfoot it to the doctor, stat? How do you care for a wrist or ankle sprain at home? How long after a sprain might you be able to use your Kaia program? And how can you prevent sprains from happening in the first place? We’re here to help you get in the know! Read on to learn more about how to care for and prevent wrist and ankle sprains.

What to expect after a wrist or ankle sprain

After a wrist or ankle sprain occurs, the body’s natural healing process, also known as the inflammatory response, will kick in. In the sprained area, the inflammatory response causes the following:

  1. Pain and sensitivity
  2. Sensation of heat caused by increased blood flow
  3. Swelling caused by fluid buildup
  4. Restricted movement

When to get medical attention

While many wrist and ankle sprains can be treated at home, some need medical attention. Look out for the following red flags. They can serve as a guideline to help you determine if you need to visit the ER or your doctor(4):

  • Excessive swelling, bruising, difficulty moving, and/or severe pain during the first 3 days after the injury
    • Visit the ER. You may need an X-ray and additional medical care.
  • If you don’t have any improvement in 2 to 4 weeks (even if the pain was mild at first)
    • Visit your doctor

Wrist and ankle sprain care at home

If your wrist or ankle sprain passes the “red flag test” above, physicians recommend following the RICE protocol for sprain care at home. You can also take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.(5)

Note: Be sure to only take the recommended dose. Also, talk to your doctor first before taking OTC pain relievers if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, stomach ulcers, or internal bleeding.

RICE protocol

Rest: Stop any activity that causes pain in the injured area.

Ice: Apply ice or a cold pack (covered in a clean dish towel) immediately to the sprain for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, 3 times daily. This helps to reduce pain and swelling. After 48 to 72 hours, a heating pad may then be applied to the painful area as long as the swelling is gone. Heat helps to loosen stiffness.

Compression: For the wrist or ankle, you can use an elastic bandage, brace, or splint (all available from your local drugstore) to minimize swelling. Note: When using elastic bandages, be sure to not wrap the area too tightly, as that can actually worsen the swelling. If swelling persists after 72 hours, talk to your doctor.

Elevation: Prop up the injured area with pillows when you’re applying ice and whenever you’re sitting or lying down. Try to keep the sprained area either at the same level as your heart or above it. This helps to bring swelling down.

When is it time to get moving again?

Generally speaking, as long as the wrist or ankle sprain isn’t severe and doesn’t involve a fracture, it’s best to gently reintroduce movement after 1-3 days. Movement helps to ease stiffness and increases flexibility in both the ligament and joint. There might be some initial discomfort in the area as you start moving it again, which is natural and to be expected. Check with your doctor about simple wrist and ankle range-of-motion exercises you can do after your sprain.

You may resume doing your Kaia physical exercises once you can move your injured wrist or ankle without feeling increased pain. If any exercise feels painful, skip that exercise and try again the next time you log in.

Wrist + ankle sprain prevention

One tricky thing about wrist and ankle sprains is that once you’ve sprained these areas, there’s a greater chance of spraining them again. Chronic (long-term) sprains can cause more injury and require more invasive medical treatment. That’s why it’s a good idea to take precautions to prevent future sprains. Plus, since these areas are more susceptible to sprains from the get-go, it’s smart to learn how to prevent sprains from happening in the first place. In general, keeping these joints strong and conditioned helps to prevent sprains by reducing stress on the ligament.(4)

For the wrist

  • Sprain prevention: If you’ve never sprained your wrist before and want to try to keep it that way, avoid sports that typically include falling (eg, skiing, downhill mountain biking, and football). Also, make sure that your desk, chair, and computer setup is ergonomic. (“Ergonomic” means designed to minimize physical fatigue and strain.)
  • Repeat sprain prevention: If you’ve sprained your wrist more than once, talk to your doctor about the activities that might be reinjuring your wrist. Ask them for advice on how you can prevent future injury.

For the ankle

  • Sprain prevention: Make sure that your footwear adequately stabilizes your ankle and is designed for the sports or activities you do the most frequently. In other words, if you play basketball, make sure that you’re not wearing running shoes!
  • Repeat sprain prevention: If you have a history of ankle sprains, consider wearing an ankle brace to protect your ankles during sports like tennis or soccer.

Conclusion

Wrists and ankles are more likely to get sprained. That’s why it’s important to care for sprains right away and prevent them from happening. Remember to check for red flags: excessive swelling, bruising, difficulty moving, and/or severe pain, or lack of improvement after 2 to 4 weeks. That’s when it’s time to seek medical attention ASAP.

If you don’t have any red flags, follow the RICE protocol: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Once you’re able, gentle movement can go a long way in helping your joints to move more easily again. Plus, staying savvy about preventing sprains can help keep your wrists and ankles happy and healthy for a long time to come.

References

1. Mayo Clinic. Sprained ankle. Mayo Clinic website. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sprained-ankle/symptoms-causes/syc-20353225.
2. National Institutes of Health. Wrist sprain — aftercare. Medline Plus website. Updated April 9, 2020. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000568.htm.
3. Doherty C, Delahunt E, Caulfield B, Hertel J, Ryan J, Bleakley C. The incidence and prevalence of ankle sprain injury: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective epidemiological studies. Sports Med. 2014;44(1):123-140.
4. Prevention. How to care for a sprain. Prevention website. Published June 22, 2014. Accessed June 16, 2021. https://www.prevention.com/health/a20429517/how-to-care-for-a-sprain/
5. University of Michigan. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). Updated November 16, 2020. Accessed June 16, 2021. University of Michigan Health website. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/tw4354spec.


By Chiara Viscomi
Medically reviewed by Kim Clarno, PT, DPT

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