A sprained wrist can occur when a person partially injures a ligament in their wrist. Ligaments are the strong connective tissues that connect bones to other bones.

There are several different ligaments in the wrist that a person could sprain.

This article covers everything a person needs to know about the symptoms, treatments, and recovery times associated with sprained wrists.

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Sprained wrists are injuries or tears to one or more ligaments in the wrist.

According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, the two most common ligaments that people sprain are the scapholunate ligament (which is located in the middle of the wrist) and the triangular fibrocartilage complex (which is located near the outside of the wrist).

Sprains can range in severity. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons grade sprains into three categories, ranging from mild to severe. Specifically:

  • Grade 1, or a mild sprain: This occurs when the ligament stretches too far but does not tear.
  • Grade 2, or a moderate sprain: This refers to a partial tear of the ligament, which can limit function in the wrist or hand.
  • Grade 3, or a severe sprain: This indicates that the ligament has a complete tear. For example, it may pull away from the bone or take a bone fragment with it.

A grade 3 tear requires medical attention. A person should contact their doctor even if they think they have a minor sprain to rule out other injuries that need specific treatment.

A person may not easily be able to tell the difference between a sprain and a fracture, or break.

Both types of injury can produce pain, swelling, bruising, and warmth around the affected area. A fall, a sudden movement, or twisting could cause either injury.

A broken wrist occurs if a person breaks one or more of the eight bones located in the wrist. This is usually a break of the distal radius, which is one of the two bones in the forearm. By contrast, a sprained wrist affects a person’s ligaments.

Often, the cause of a sprain is a sudden twist, impact, or movement that overstretches or pushes the wrist in a direction that it does not typically go.

Some specific causes of sprained wrists can include:

  • blunt trauma from a fall, hit, or other force
  • twisting the wrist suddenly or too far
  • stretching the wrist too far

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, outdoor activities and sports are common causes of injuries to the wrists.

A person will typically experience pain when they sprain their wrist.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, some other symptoms of a sprained wrist can include:

  • bruising
  • warmth around the wrist
  • swelling
  • tenderness to the touch
  • a popping or tearing feeling inside the wrist

These symptoms are similar to those of other, and sometimes more severe, injuries that require medical attention.

When a person visits their doctor for wrist pain or a suspected sprain or break, the doctor will likely ask questions to learn more about what happened to cause the pain.

They will likely examine the person’s wrist and have the person perform movement tests to check for pain and mobility issues.

According to one article, a doctor may be able to diagnose the issue with an examination.

However, if they cannot tell whether the person has broken or sprained their wrist, they will likely order an imaging test, such as an X-ray. They may also order other imaging tests if they need more information about the injury.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, a person does not typically need to undergo surgery for a wrist sprain.

Often, treatment can consist of applying ice, resting, and taking over-the-counter pain relief medications. A person should also wear a splint to help immobilize the joint.

However, if a person’s symptoms do not improve within around 6 weeks, they should talk with their doctor. The doctor will likely need to reassess the wrist and recommend additional therapies, such as surgery.

Surgery is more likely when a person has sustained a complete ligament tear. This injury can sometimes destabilize the wrist.

A person can typically treat a sprained wrist with minimal medical intervention.

In fact, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommend using the RICE method. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

In other words, a person should avoid using their wrist, use an ice pack regularly, compress the wrist, and keep it elevated as much as possible. This can help prevent swelling and additional injuries to the wrist.

It can take several weeks for the wrist to heal. People can often expect to feel at least somewhat better within 6 weeks. That said, this time frame can change based on the severity of the injury or tear.

A person should talk with their doctor about how long it may take for them to recover and when it is safe for them to return to their normal activities.

The American Society for Surgery of the Hand suggest that people keep their fingers moving throughout recovery from a wrist injury. Moving the fingers may help prevent them from becoming stiff.

It may not be possible to prevent all cases of sprained wrists. However, there are some steps a person can take to reduce their risk of injury.

For example, people can take the following preventive steps:

  • Avoid activities or sports that might cause trauma to the wrist.
  • Use two hands to lift and hold heavier objects.
  • Attempt to keep the wrist straight during most activities.

It may also help to perform strengthening exercises to help prevent injury. For example, a person may wish to squeeze a stress ball or other semisoft ball for 15–20 seconds and repeat this three times per day to help strengthen the wrist.

People can also take steps to prevent wrist sprains by avoiding walking on icy or slippery surfaces and by wearing appropriate wrist guards when engaging in activities that may injure the joint.

Both the American Society for Surgery of the Hand and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommend that a person contact their doctor if they believe that they have sprained their wrist.

A doctor will need to assess the injury and determine the best treatment options to prevent either more invasive treatment later or permanent damage to the wrist.

Sprained wrists are a common but very painful injury to the ligaments in a person’s wrist. A person can sprain their wrist through sudden movements, by falling, or during contact sports.

When a sprain occurs, a person will likely feel pain and may have symptoms such as swelling or bruising in the affected area.

A person should talk with their doctor if they suspect that they have injured their wrist. The doctor can recommend treatments and check for possible broken bones.