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Treatment of Sprains and Strains

What to do to help heal sprains and strains


Updated May 27, 2014

The treatment of muscle sprains and strains has two main goals. The first goal is to reduce swelling and pain; the second is to speed recovery and rehabilitation.

To reduce swelling it is recommended to follow use R.I.C.E. therapy (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) for the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury.

An over the counter (or prescription) anti-inflammatory medication may also help decrease pain and inflammation.

R.I.C.E. Therapy

Reduce regular exercise or other activities as much as you can. Your doctor may advise you to put no weight on an injured area for 48 hours. If you cannot put weight on an ankle or knee, crutches may help. If you use a cane or one crutch for an ankle injury, use it on the uninjured side to help you lean away and relieve weight on the injured ankle.


Apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day. A cold pack, ice bag, or plastic bag filled with crushed ice and wrapped in a towel can be used. To avoid cold injury and frostbite, do not apply the ice for more than 20 minutes.


Compression of an injured ankle, knee, or wrist may help reduce swelling. Examples of compression bandages are elastic wraps, special boots, air casts, and splints. Ask your doctor for advice on which one to use.


If possible, keep the injured ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist elevated on a pillow, above the level of the heart, to help decrease swelling.

Rehabilitation for Sprains and Strains

The second stage of treating a sprain or strain is rehabilitation to restore normal function. When the pain and swelling are reduced you can generally begin gentle exercise. A custom program is often created by a physical therapist that prevents stiffness, improves range of motion, improves flexibility and builds strength. Depending on the type of injury you have, you may go to physical therapy for several weeks, or do the exercises at home.

People with an ankle sprain may start with range of motion exercises, such as writing the alphabet in the air with the big toe. An athlete with an injured knee or foot will work on weight-bearing and balancing exercises. The length of this stage depends on the extent of the injury, but it is often several weeks.

Rebuilding strength is a slow and gradual process, and only when done correctly can the athlete consider returning to sports. It's tempting to resume full activity despite pain or muscle soreness, but returning to full activity soon increases the chance of re-injury and may lead to a chronic problem.

Also See:
Injury Rehab Protocols
When is it Safe to Play Sports After an Injury?

The amount of rehabilitation and the time needed for full recovery after a muscle sprain or strain depend on the severity of the injury and individual rates of healing. A moderate ankle sprain may require three to six weeks of rehabilitation and severe sprain can take eight to 12 months to rehab completely and avoid re-injury. Patience and learning to cope with an injury is essential to recovery.

Preventing Sprains and Strains

There are many things athletes can do to help lower their risk of muscle sprains and strains. Start by reviewing these 10 Tips for Safe Workouts


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Sprains and Strains: What's the Difference?

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