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What is a Sprained Ligament?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Ligaments are fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones to create joints in the body. When one of those connecting ligaments endures a strain that begins to tear the tiny fibers that make up that tissue, the injury is known as a sprained ligament, or sometimes it is simply referred to as a sprain. A sprain differs from a strain in one important way: sprains can only happen to ligaments, not muscles or tendons. A strain can happen to muscles and tendons, but not to ligaments. A sprained ligament often requires several days to weeks for recovery time, and in more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to repair the ligament.

Sports injuries account for many sprained ligament injuries because during physical activity, the joints are likely to bend unnaturally or stretch beyond their means. Such overstretching or twisting can also occur in daily life, or during unforeseen accidents such as automobile crashes or falls down stairs. Any motion that allows the joint to move in a manner to which it is not accustomed may result in slight to severe tearing of the ligament. When a sprained ligament occurs, the symptoms may include swelling, bruising, tenderness in the affected joint, limited mobility, or a feeling of weakness.

Sprained ligaments should be treated with compression and elevation.
Sprained ligaments should be treated with compression and elevation.

Most sprained ligament injuries can be treated with the RICE treatment — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Rest is the most important of these elements, as the ligaments often repair themselves on their own after time. Ice, compression, and elevation all work to keep swelling at bay, thereby reducing the pain associated with a sprained ligament and encouraging faster healing times. In some cases, when the ligament fully ruptures, or is torn all the way through, surgery may be necessary to repair the damaged fibers. A rupture will be notably more painful than a sprain, and the recovery time associated with such an injury is significantly longer.

Once the injury has healed enough that little to no pain is felt in the joint, the rehabilitation process can continue with light stretching and easy exercise that promotes mobility and strength. The ligament will have weakened during the rest period of rehabilitation, and the injured person will have to rebuild that strength to return to normal functioning. This phase is especially important for athletes who may need to re-strengthen the ligaments enough to participate regularly in strenuous physical activity. For minor sprained ligament injuries, stretching and exercise can be done at home; more severe injuries may require the services of a professional physical therapist.

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    • Sprained ligaments should be treated with compression and elevation.
      By: BlueSkyImages
      Sprained ligaments should be treated with compression and elevation.