Think your wrist is simply a single joint that connects your hand and forearm? Think again. The wrist is actually composed of multiple joints that connect 15 whole bones together including the ulna and radius in the arm and the carpals and metacarpals of the wrist and hand. Tough, fibrous tissues known as ligaments help to hold everything in place, stabilizing the wrist while also allowing it a wide range of motion.

How Do Wrist Sprains Occur?

At their most basic, wrist sprains are any injury to one or more ligaments in the wrist. Ligaments can incur microscopic tears or full ruptures from a variety of actions including sudden impact or extreme bending or twisting that forces the wrist out of its normal range of motion. Common causes of wrist sprains include:

Playing sports – between 3 and 9% of all sports injuries occur in the wrist or hand. Players in impact sports like football, baseball, or basketball are at higher risk of developing wrist sprains. Other wrist-heavy sports also see their share of sprains including weightlifting, volleyball, racquet sports, boxing, wrestling, and ice hockey.

Falls – especially during winter months full of slick and icy conditions, falls can result in a wide array of wrist sprains and broken bones. Most often, when a person falls and stretches their hands out in front to brace themselves upon impact with the ground, their wrists bear the brunt of that shock. Skiers also commonly incur wrist sprains when they fall but continue to grip their ski poles.

There are three primary degrees of wrist sprain that vary by severity:

  • Grade I – a mild sprain of this grade may involve microscopic trauma like micro-tearing or stretching of one or more ligaments in the wrist.

  • Grade II – a moderate sprain of this grade is characterized by more severe ligament damage like being partially torn.

  • Grade III – a severe sprain involves one or more ligaments being completely torn or pulled away from the bone to which they were attached.

Symptoms of a Wrist Sprain

Since the range of sprain severity can be wide, it is important to be able to recognize the symptoms. Pain in and around the wrist, bruising, swelling, and a limited ability to move your wrist joint can all indicate a sprain, especially when following a sudden impact or prolonged period of repetitive wrist movement. Sometimes, you may even hear an audible popping or snapping sound in the wrist when the sprain occurs.

Because the same injuries that result in a wrist sprain can also cause fractures, it’s important to know how to tell a wrist sprain from a fracture as well. If you feel pain in the bones directly above the wrist joint, if you can’t move your wrist at all, or if there is numbness in or anywhere around the wrist, you will want to see a doctor right away so they can conduct imaging scans and see if there is a fracture involved.

Treating a Wrist Sprain

A mild sprain may be treated at home with rest, elevation, compression, and ice packs to limit the swelling. You may also want to wear a wrist brace or splint, especially when sleeping, to help stabilize and align the joint and prevent yourself from re-injuring it while it heals.

For more severe sprains, it’s worth getting a clinical evaluation from a doctor. They can cover with you the details of how you injured it, any past injuries you may have had, as well as manually examine the wrist itself. They will look for pain points, swelling, range of motion, and the specific ligament that is the source of your pain. If a fracture or severe sprain is suspected, a doctor can order imaging tests like x-rays to confirm it.

Preventing Wrist Sprains

Several risk factors can increase your chances of spraining your wrist including lack of conditioning, skipping warm-ups prior to physical activity, dangerous environmental conditions, fatigue and improper body mechanics or sporting form. To lower your chances of spraining your wrist, keep these prevention tips in mind:

  • Stretch and strengthen your arms, wrists, and hands regularly to help improve flexibility and joint range of motion. Warm-up prior to working out or playing sports.

  • Avoid physical activity in inclement conditions like running on icy or slick roads.

  • Make sure your training equipment (i.e. weight machines) is sturdy, supportive, and well-maintained.

  • Avoid workouts or other physical activity when your body is fatigued.

  • When skiing, utilize poles with lower grips that feature finger grooves and avoid strapping poles to your wrists. If you fall, try your best to drop your poles before you hit the ground.

  • Wear supportive orthotic aids like wrist guards or braces during physical activity.