Understanding the Difference Between a Wrist Strain and Wrist Sprain

Close Up Of Businessman Suffering With Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

Wrist sprains and strains share many of the same symptoms, but the cause of each is quite different.

If you’ve recently taken a tumble and stopped your fall with your hand, your wrist will likely feel sore. But you’re also probably wondering whether the injury is a sprain or a strain. Both injuries share several similar characteristics — pain, swelling, bruising, and limited range of motion in the joint — which makes it difficult to know if the injury is, in fact, a sprain or a strain.

Whether you’ve sprained or strained your wrist depends on which part of the wrist was injured. The bones of the wrist joint are held together by a network of ligaments and tendons. Which one of those soft issues has been stretched or torn will tell you if you have a sprain or strain.

Wrist Sprain Vs. Strain

A wrist sprain refers to a trauma to the ligaments in the wrists. Made of strong, fibrous tissue, ligaments connect the bones or cartilage within our joints. Sprains can be caused by falls, but they may also occur if you suddenly twist your wrist out of its normal range of motion or are injured while playing a contact sport. At the moment of impact, you may hear a popping sound in the wrist. 

Sprains are classified into three levels. The first level is a mild stretch or rupture of the ligament, but the joint remains stable. A more severe tear but with a slight degree of instability falls into the second category. In the third level, the ligament has completed ruptured and the joint feels unstable.

Meanwhile, if you’ve torn or bruised your wrist tendon, you have a strain. Like ligaments, tendons are made of thick, fibrous tissue that link muscles to bones. Strains can happen after a fall or lifting a heavy object, but can also develop over time if you participate in sports with repetitive actions, such as tennis or rowing. You may also experience muscle spasms or cramping after a strain.

Sprains and strains can be treated at home with the RICE method to reduce pain and swelling. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Specifically, you can apply an ice pack for 20 minutes every three hours, tape the wrist with bandages, and raise your wrist above your chest.

Over-the-counter pain medication can reduce the discomfort, as well. You can slip on a wrist brace to keep the wrist immobile so you don’t further irritate the ligament or tendon.

If at-home remedies fail to alleviate pain and swelling, or if the joint takes on an abnormal shape, you should visit a hand specialist who can recommend a program of physical therapy. Severe sprains or strains may require surgery.

We’re the Hand Specialists

Florida Hand Center exclusively treats injuries to the hand and wrist. We use state-of-the-art diagnostic tools to determine the exact cause of your pain in order to recommend the right therapies for your individual needs. If you’re experiencing persistent wrist pain, contact us today for an appointment. We’ll restore the full range of motion in your wrist so you can enjoy everyday activities once again.