Treatment and Prevention of Wrist Sprains

A Sprained Wrist is a Common Cause of Wrist Pain After a Fall on a Hand

Close-up of woman putting on a wrist support
Close-up of woman putting on a wrist support. George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

One of the most common causes of wrist pain in athletes is a sprained wrist. A wrist sprain typically occurs after a fall on an outstretched hand stretches or tears the ligaments of the wrist. This can happen in falls during sports such as inline skating, snowboarding, soccer, football, baseball, and volleyball.

When an athlete falls on the outstretched hands, the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the wrist take the majority of the impact, and can be stretched and possibly torn.

If these tissues are inflexible or weak, the risk of injury increases.

What's the Difference Between a Sprain and a Strain?

It's helpful to understand the difference between a sprain and a strain.

  • A sprain is an injury to a ligament, the tough, fibrous tissue that connects bones to other bones. Ligament injuries involve a stretching or a tearing of this tissue.
  • A strain is an injury to either a muscle or a tendon, which is the tissue that connects muscles to bones. Depending on the severity of the injury, a strain may be a simple overstretch of the muscle or tendon, or it can result in a partial or complete tear.

Signs and Symptoms of a Sprained Wrist

In the wrist, a sprain is much more common that a strain due to the number of ligaments that support the bones in the wrist. A wrist sprain typically causes pain, tenderness, and swelling over the wrist after a fall. It will be red, tender and warm to the touch.

There may be bruising, decreased range of motion, and a dull deep ache in the wrist.

If you have these symptoms after a fall on a hand, you should see a physician for an exam to make sure there is not fracture. One particular fracture to the scaphoid (or navicular) bone in the wrist can be fairly serious if not treated properly.

For this reason, any wrist injury should be seen by a physician for an evaluation.

Wrist sprains (like other sprains) are graded according to severity:

  • Grade 1 (mild) -- over-stretching / micro-tears of ligaments
  • Grade 2 (moderate) -- partial ligament tears and mild joint instability
  • Grade 3 (severe) -- severe or complete ligament tears and significant joint instability

Sprained Wrist Treatment

R.I.C.E is the first line treatment of a sprained wrist. This includes:

  • Rest. Stop activity and don't use the injured wrist for 48 hours or until the pain and swelling has subsided.
  • Ice. Ice the wrist by applying a cold pack (wrapped in a towel) or a bag of crushed ice to the wrist for 15 minutes, several a day for several days, until swelling subsides. Don't ice your​ injury for more​ than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Compression. Use an elastic compression bandage to wrap the wrist and limit swelling. Start the wrap at the base of the fingers and stop just below the elbow. The wrap should be snug, but be careful not to cut off circulation to the fingers.
  • Elevation. Keep the injured wrist higher than your heart as often as possible during the day and at night for the first two days after the injury. This will help drain fluid and reduce swelling around the wrist.
  • Over-the-counter pain medications. These may include Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), Naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), Acetaminophen (Tylenol), or Aspirin.

    *Always check with your physician before taking any medication.

  • Bracing. Your doctor may recommend that you use a brace to immobilize your wrist, especially when playing sports. cast
  • Immobilization. If you have a severe sprain, your doctor may recommend a cast for two to three weeks.
  • Rehabilitation Exercises. You may also see a physical therapist for flexibility, range ​of motion, and strengthening exercises for the injured wrist.
  • Surgery. In rare cases, surgery may be needed to repair a ligament that is torn completely or if there is a bone fracture.

    Sprained Wrist Prevention

    Wearing protective gear, such as wrist guards, may help prevent wrist sprains in some sports. Playing by the rules, and simply being aware of your surroundings may also help prevent falls that lead to wrist sprains.


    Morgan WJ, Slowman LS. Acute Hand and Wrist Injuries in Athletes: Evaluation and Management. Journal of the American Academpy of Orthopedic Surgeons, Vol 9, No 6, November/December 2001, 389-400.

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