Joint Sprain

Joint sprains are painful and sometimes require surgery

Woman with bandage on ankle
Woman with bandage on ankle. Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/Brand X Pictures

Medical Specialties:

Family practice, Internal medicine, Orthopedics

Clinical Definition:

Joint sprain is the stretching or tearing of the connective tissue that connects bone to bone and supports the joints, also known as a ligament. It's often confused with a strain, defined as an injury to a muscle or tendon, the cord of tissue that attaches muscle to bone. Pain, bruising, swelling and inflammation are common with joint sprain.

Rest, ice, compression and elevation are typical treatments.

In Our Own Words:

Joint sprain, one of the most common sports injuries, occurs when one or more ligaments are overloaded or torn. Ligaments connect bone to bone and support the joints. Sprains happen when the joint is stretched beyond its normal limits. Sprains can be mild to severe; often a pop or tear in the joint is felt.

Among the most common are sprains of the ankle and finger (''jammed finger''). The vast majority of ankle injuries occur when the foot inverts, turning the ankle inward and injuring the outer (lateral) ligaments. Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) are advised.

A Closer Look at Different Types of Joint Sprain

Acromioclavicular joint sprain. The acromioclavicular (AC) joint connects the collar bone (clavicle) and scapula. This injury happens after a person falls on the outside of her shoulder with her arm at the side.

This sprain can be classified into 6 types.

  • Type 1 sprain is mild and the joint remains intact without any evidence of injury on x-ray.
  • Type 2 sprain involves tearing of the AC ligaments. This injury is apparent on x-ray.
  • Type 3 sprain involves tearing of even more ligaments and elevation of the collarbone that results in tenting of the skin.
  • Type 4 to 6 sprains are rare and more severe. These injuries require surgery.

People with AC joint sprain have shoulder pain which worsens with crossbody or overhead stretching of the shoulder. People with AC joint sprain have trouble moving the shoulder and exhibit muscle weakness. Type 1 to type 3 injuries are usually treated without surgery. Drugs such as naproxen and ibuprofen (NSAIDs) help alleviate the pain of AC joint sprain.

Lumbosacral joint sprain. Lumbosacral joint sprain affects the paravertebral muscles and ligaments of the lower back. In fact, up to 90 percent of all lower back pain is attributable to strain or sprain. Such sprains often occur after lifting heavy objects, a fall or a sudden jerking movement. Depending on the severity of injury, treatment for this sprain can include pain medications, steroid injections or even surgery.

Interphalangeal joint sprain. The interphalangeal joints are the joints of the fingers. Interphalangeal joint sprain results in fusiform or spindle-shaped swelling and may persist for months.

Most people with this type of joint sprain have a long history of trauma to the area.

First metatarsophalangeal joint sprain. This sprain affects the joint of the big toe and occurs when somebody hits your foot from behind while your big toe is planted into the ground. This condition is often called "turf toe" because it's an injury that commonly affects athletes playing on artificial turf.  Turf toe causes pain when the big toe is moved or weight is placed on the big toe. In addition to RICE therapies, turf toe can also be treated with casting or boot placement. With particularly severe cases of turf toe, surgery is needed.


The Cleveland Clinic. "Sprains." Accessed August 2013.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "Sprains and Strains: What's the Difference?" Accessed August 2013.

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