A wrist sprain is an injury where the ligaments in your wrist stretch or tear. Ligaments are bands of tissue that attach bones at a joint.

Typically, the injury happens during a fall. Your wrist can suddenly twist or bend, causing damage to the ligaments.

Most wrist sprains can be treated with home remedies and exercises. If your sprain is serious, you might need a splint or surgery.

Read on to learn about the different types of wrist sprains and what treatment and recovery looks like.

If you think your wrist is sprained, look for the following signs and symptoms:

What does a sprained wrist feel like?

A sprained wrist is very painful, especially when you move it. It might also:

  • feel tender
  • feel warm
  • make popping or tearing sounds
  • be difficult to move
  • feel weak

What does a sprained wrist look like?

A mildly sprained wrist might be slightly swollen.

In more serious sprains, the swelling can be severe. You may have bruising.

Usually, a wrist pain is caused by physical trauma to the wrist. This typically happens when you fall onto an outstretched hand, an injury known as FOOSH.

You can sprain your wrist if it:

  • suddenly twists
  • moves in an abnormal position
  • bends backward
  • sustains heavy impact

This often happens during sports that commonly involve falls, such as:

  • basketball
  • gymnastics
  • mountain biking
  • skateboarding

The injury can also be caused by overuse, which might occur in sports like tennis and boxing.

Wrist sprains can happen to anyone, not just athletes. You can sprain your wrist during accidents like slipping on ice or tripping over an object.

After your injury, apply ice to reduce swelling. Wrap an ice pack with a clean towel, then place it on your wrist for 20 minutes. Repeat two or three times a day.

You can also wrap your wrist with a compression bandage to minimize swelling. Here’s how:

  1. Place one end of the bandage on the inside of your wrist. Wrap around once.
  2. Wrap the bandage across the back of your hand. Bring it up and diagonally over your palm, moving toward your thumb.
  3. Place the bandage between your thumb and pointer finger. Next, bring it behind your fingers.
  4. Bring the bandage diagonally across your palm and under your thumb.
  5. Wrap the bandage across the lower back of your hand, over your wrist, then across the back. Wrap diagonally across your palm, between your thumb and pointer finger again.
  6. Repeat wrapping diagonally across your palm, creating a crisscross. Repeat the crisscross toward your wrist and lower arm.
  7. Use tape to keep the bandage in place.

Wrist sprains are categorized based on their severity. The types of wrist sprains include:

Grade 1 sprained wrist (mild)

In a grade 1 wrist sprain, the ligaments are overstretched. There are no tears.

Grade 2 sprained wrist (moderate)

If the ligament has partly torn, it’s a grade 2 wrist sprain. You may lose some mobility and need a splint or brace.

Grade 3 sprained wrist (severe)

This is the most serious type of wrist sprain. The ligaments have completely torn. In some cases, the ligament might separate from the bone.

If you have a grade 3 wrist sprain, you may need surgery.

Like a wrist sprain, a wrist break is often caused by a fall. It’s also called a wrist fracture. The injury involves the bone. It happens when one or several bones in your wrist crack or break.

Common symptoms of a broken wrist include:

  • severe pain, especially when moving your hand
  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • bruising
  • hand looks out of place

If you think your wrist is broken, get medical help immediately.

Wrist sprains and strains are often confused with each other, but they’re different injuries.

A sprain affects a ligament. On the other hand, a strain is when a muscle or tendon is overstretched or torn. Tendons are the bands of tissue that attach muscle to bone.

Possible symptoms include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • cramping
  • difficulty moving your wrist

If your wrist sprain is mild, it might get better without medical help.

But if it doesn’t improve in 48 hours, visit a doctor. You should also seek help if you have:

  • persistent pain
  • persistent swelling
  • bruising
  • difficulty moving your wrist
  • recently sustained a serious injury, like a vehicle collision

If you don’t have a medical health provider, you can search for one.

A doctor can diagnose a wrist sprain by using different tests. This lets them rule out other injuries, like a wrist break or strain.

Possible tests include:

  • Physical examination. At your initial appointment, a doctor will look for swelling, tenderness, and bruising. They’ll assess your mobility.
  • MRI or CT scan. MRI and CT scans create images of your ligaments and tendons. A doctor can use them to check the severity of your injury.
  • X-ray. A doctor may order an X-ray to confirm your wrist is not broken.

The best treatment plan depends on the severity of your sprain. Most wrist sprains can be treated without surgery.

Home remedies for a sprained wrist

At home, you can treat a mild wrist sprain with the RICE method:

  • Rest. Avoid using your wrist for 48 hours. Try not to do activities that involve your wrist, like writing with a pen.
  • Ice. Apply an ice pack for 20 minutes, two or three times each day. Never use ice without wrapping it first, as this can damage your skin.
  • Compression. Wrap a compression bandage around your wrist to minimize swelling.
  • Elevation. Keeping your wrist above your heart will also help swelling.

Wrist sprain exercises

A physical therapist can show you gentle wrist exercises to minimize stiffness and improve mobility.

If you’ve been given a splint, remove it before doing the exercises. Do the moves two or three times a day:

Palm up and down

Bend your elbow to 90 degrees and place it against your side. Face your palm upward, then rotate and face it downward.

Finger range of motion

Spread your fingers wide, keeping your wrist and fingers straight. Touch your thumb to each fingertip, one at a time.

Fist exercise

Make a fist, placing your thumb around your fingers. Avoid squeezing too hard.

Wrist up and down

Using the other hand, gently bend your wrist up and back. Repeat in the opposite direction, bending it down and forward.

Wrist lifts

Place your arm at the edge of a table, forearm and palm facing up. Your wrist should be past the edge.

Hold a light weight, like a 2-pound dumbbell. Gently bend your wrist, moving the weight toward the ceiling. Return to starting position and repeat 10 to 20 times.

You can also do this exercise with your palm facing down.

For a mild sprain, you can take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help the pain. These pain relievers are available over the counter.

You might need a splint or brace if you have a moderate sprain. This will immobilize your wrist as it heals.

Most wrist sprains get better with immobilization and rest. Typically, surgery is only needed for severe injuries.

Common surgeries used for wrist sprains include:

A mild wrist sprain will start feeling better 24 to 48 hours after you start treatment. It will fully heal in 1 or 2 weeks.

If you have a moderate or severe injury, recovery might last 6 to 8 weeks. You’ll need to wear splint for most of this time.

In a severe sprain, your ligament will heal in 8 to 12 weeks. A full recovery may take 6 to 12 months, especially if you need surgery.

It’s not always possible to avoid accidents, but you can reduce your risk of slips and falls.

Follow these tips to prevent wrist sprains:

  • Use caution when walking in rain or icy weather.
  • Wear wrist guards during activities like basketball, skiing, and skateboarding. If you fall, the wrist guard will stop your wrist from extreme motions.
  • Wear shoes that properly fit to minimize the risk of falls.
  • Lift heavy objects with both hands to reduce the pressure on each wrist.

In most cases, a sprained wrist can be treated with rest, ice, and over-the-counter pain relievers. A compression bandage can also help control swelling. Mild sprains heal in 2 weeks, while moderate sprains can take 6 to 8 weeks.

Surgery is only needed if your sprain is severe or doesn’t heal. In this case, recovery can last 6 to 12 months, depending on your injury.