What is a joint sprain?
A joint or ligament sprain is a stretch to the connective tissue fibres that connect bone to bone. Too much stress on a ligament can result in a stretch or tear. These sprains can occur either from falling or twisting your ankle during sport. There are varying degrees of pain but this may not reflect the seriousness of the injury. Common places to encounter include the gym, home, or workplace (especially if your carrying heavy loads).
Sprains are graded as follows:
- Grade I – stretching of the ligament or a very mild tear with little or no instability at the joint
- Grade II – a more serious but still incomplete tear, with some looseness in the joint
- Grade III – a completely torn or ruptured ligament. This does not mean you have a broken bone, but it can certainly feel like it as it may be impossible to put weight on the joint or use the affected limb as the joint is unstable
Examples of joint sprains
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Knee Sprain
This is the largest ligament in your knee. This type of sprain is typical during sports that involve sudden stops, jumping, and landing. You may hear a “pop” in the knee followed by severe pain when an ACL injury occurs. You may also feel that your knee is unstable, swollen, and unable to bear weight. Dependant on the severity of your injury, your treatment plan will include rest and physiotherapy in order to regain strength and stability. If your injury is severe, you may need surgery to replace the torn ligament.
Anterior Talofibular Ligament (ATFL) Ankle Sprain
The ATFL is the ligament in your ankle that keeps it stable and stops you from falling over or twisting your ankle. This injury normally occurs when you land on your ankle with your foot turned in. This can be very painful as the ankle often swells, feels unstable, and the pain results in difficulty weight bearing. When you damage the AFTL there is usually a partial or complete tear of the tissue. A mild injury may stretch the ligament but not actually tear it.
Physiotherapy can help get you back on your feet quickly by focusing on regaining strength in the ankle, restoring full range of movement, and balance training. Physio combined with ice treatment, rest, and a good ankle support will help recovery. Very severe sprains may require further intervention and should be assessed by a doctor to rule out any ligament tears.
What are the early signs and symptoms of a joint sprain?
There a few early signs that you may have a ligament sprain. These include:
- Localised pain
- Feeling of instability of the joint
- Localised swelling, cramping, or inflammation
- General weakness of the joint
- Difficulty weight bearing through your limb
Severe strains that partially or completely tear the ligaments are often very painful and require surgical intervention.
What causes a joint sprain?
Usually, a ligament sprain is caused by a twisting motion. Sprains can be anything from acute to chronic. An acute sprain is caused by trauma or injury and by lifting heavy objects that over-stress the joint. Chronic sprains are usually the result of overuse and repetitive movements.
How is a joint sprain diagnosed?
Your doctor or physiotherapist will ask about your symptoms and examine you for signs of a ligament sprain. These include swelling, tenderness, and joint mobility. They will also take your medical history and ask how your injury occurred. You may be sent for an MRI scan to confirm whether or not you have sprained or ruptured your ligament.
How is a joint sprain treated?
- Rest, ice, compress, and elevation (for the first couple of days after the injury)
- Hot baths and heat packs
- Gentle massage
- Range of movement and gentle strengthening exercises
- Pain medication and anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)
- Reduce weight-bearing through limb if injury is severe
- Consider using elbow crutches if severe
- Activity modification
- Physiotherapy to help you return to normal function
- Use a support such as a tubigrip or brace if prescribed by your doctor
- Surgery may be a last resort if the ligament is fully ruptured and needs repairing
How physiotherapy can help your joint sprain
We will do whatever we can to get you on the fastest route to recovery. Some of the treatment methods we use include:
- Strengthening exercises
- Myofascial trigger point release
- Cross-friction massage
- Stretching and range of movement exercises
- Functional exercises