Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.

It’s likely to be a sprain or strain if:

  • you have pain, tenderness or weakness – usually around your ankle, foot, wrist, thumb, knee, leg or back
  • the injured area is swollen or bruised
  • you cannot put weight on the injury or use it normally
  • you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own

For the first 2 to 3 days after a sprain or strain, follow the 5 steps known as PRICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:

  1. Protection – protect the injury, for example by using a support, or shoes that support your foot or ankle.
  2. Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
  3. Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
  4. Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it during the day.
  5. Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.

To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat (such as hot baths and heat packs), alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.

When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle does not become stiff.

A pharmacist can help with sprains and strains

Speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest tablets, or a cream or gel you rub on the skin.

At first, try painkillers like paracetamol to ease the pain and ibuprofen gel, mousse or spray to bring down swelling.

If needed, you can take ibuprofen tablets, capsules or syrup that you swallow.

Find a pharmacy

After 2 weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better.

Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there’s a risk of further damage.

Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.

Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle.

Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.

Get help from NHS 111 if:

You’ve had an injury and:

  • it’s very painful, or the pain is getting worse
  • there’s a large amount of swelling or bruising, or the swelling or bruising is getting worse
  • it hurts to put weight on it
  • it feels very stiff or is difficult to move
  • it’s not feeling any better after treating it yourself
  • you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery – this could be an infection

You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.

You could also go to an urgent treatment centre.

If you need treatment for a sprain or strain you may be given self-care advice or prescribed a stronger painkiller.

You may need an X-ray, which can sometimes be done at an urgent treatment centre, or you may be referred to hospital.

Physiotherapy for sprains and strains

If you have a sprain or strain that’s taking longer than usual to get better, a GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Find a physiotherapist

Self-refer for treatment

If you have a sprain or strain, you might be able to refer yourself directly to services for help with your condition without seeing a GP.

To find out if there are any services in your area:

Call 999 or go to A&E if:

  • you heard a crack when you had your injury
  • the injured body part has changed shape or is pointing at an odd angle
  • the injured body part is numb, tingling or has pins and needles
  • the skin around the injury has changed colour, such as looking blue or grey, or is cold to touch

You may have broken a bone and will need an X-ray.


Page last reviewed: 22-04-2024
Next review due:22-04-2027

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