A sprain is an injury to the ligaments around a joint. Ligaments are strong, flexible fibers that hold bones together.
When you sprain your wrist, you have pulled or torn one or more of the ligaments in your wrist joint. This can happen from landing on your hand wrong when you fall.
More about your injury
Wrist sprains can be mild to severe. They are ranked by how severely the ligament is pulled or torn away from the bone.
Grade 1 -- Ligaments are stretched too far, but not torn. This is a mild injury.
Grade 2 -- Ligaments are partially torn. This is a moderate injury and may require splinting or casting to stabilize the joint.
Grade 3 -- Ligaments are completely torn. This is a severe injury and usually requires medical or surgical care.
Chronic wrist sprains from poorly treated ligament injuries in the past can lead to weakening of the bones and ligaments in the wrist. This can lead to arthritis if not treated.
What to expect
Symptoms such as pain, swelling, bruising and loss of strength or stability are common with mild (grade 1) to moderate (grade 2) wrist sprains.
With mild injuries, stiffness is normal once the ligament begins to heal. This can improve with light stretching.
Severe (grade 3) wrist sprains may need to be looked at by a hand surgeon. X-rays or an MRI of the wrist may need to be done. More severe injuries may require surgery.
Chronic sprains should be treated with splinting, pain medicine, and anti-inflammatory medicine. Chronic sprains may need steroid injections and possibly surgery.
For the first few days or weeks after your injury:
Rest. Stop any activity that causes pain. You may need a splint. You can find wrist splints at your local drugstore.
Ice your wrist for about 20 minutes, 2 to 3 times a day. To prevent skin injury, wrap the ice pack in a clean cloth before applying.
Make sure to rest your wrist as much as you can. Use a compression wrap or splint to keep the wrist from moving and to keep the swelling down.
For pain, you can use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can buy these pain medicines at the store.
Talk with your health care provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle or by your health care provider.
Do not give aspirin to children.
To build strength once your wrist starts to feel better, try the ball drill.
With your palm up, place a rubber ball in your hand and grab it with your fingers.
Keep your hand and wrist still while you gently squeeze the ball.
Squeeze for about 30 seconds, then release.
Repeat this 20 times, twice a day.
To increase flexibility and movement:
Warm up your wrist by using a heating pad or warm washcloth for about 10 minutes.
Once your wrist is warm, hold your hand out flat and grab your fingers with the un-injured hand. Gently bring the fingers back to bend the wrist. Stop just before it begins to feel uncomfortable. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
Take a minute to let your wrist relax. Repeat the stretch 5 times.
Bend your wrist in the opposite direction, stretching downward and holding for 30 seconds. Relax your wrist for a minute, and repeat this stretch 5 times, as well.
If you feel increased discomfort in your wrist after these exercises, ice the wrist for 20 minutes.
Do the exercises twice a day.
Follow up with your doctor 1 to 2 weeks after your injury. Based on the severity of your injury, your doctor may want to see you more than once.
For chronic wrist sprains, talk to your doctor about what activity may be causing you to re-injure your wrist and what you can do to prevent further injury.
When to call the doctor
Call the doctor if you have:
Sudden numbness or tingling
A sudden increase in pain or swelling
Sudden bruising or locking in the wrist
An injury that does not seem to be healing as expected
Ingari JV. Wrist and hand. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr., Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 20.
Skirven TM, Osterman AL. Clinical examination of the wrist. In: Skirven TM, Osterman AL, Fedorczyk JM, Amadio PC. Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2011:chap 7.
C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.