How to Tell if You Have a Sprained Wrist

If you think you have a sprained wrist, you should see a doctor if your pain worsens or doesn’t improve on its own within a few days. A sprained wrist not only causes discomfort but can also progress into the need for more serious treatment intervention if you wait to seek medical attention. Here at The Hand and Wrist Institute, we’re providing a guide on this injury and its causes. We’ll also discuss how to tell if you have a sprained wrist, explain diagnostic procedures, and review common treatment options.

What Is a Sprained Wrist?

A sprained wrist is an injury that occurs when the ligaments in your wrist stretch beyond their limits. Wrist ligaments are strong, flexible bands of connective tissue that hold together the eight floating bones in your wrist known as carpals. The tissue has some degree of flexibility to protect your bones and ensure proper movement, but they can stretch only so far before experiencing damage. Sprained wrists can range from ligament microtears that can heal on their own to more severe tears that require treatment.

While a wrist sprain can involve an injury to any of the ligaments in this area, one of the most commonly injured wrist ligaments is the scapholunate ligament in the middle of the wrist.

Another common one is the triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC) ligament on the outside of the wrist. The TFCC ligament stabilizes the entire size of your wrist by connecting your forearm bones to the pinky finger. This ligament is interesting in that a tear can result not only from an acute injury but also from natural wear and tear. Some patients develop issues with their TFCC simply due to aging and may experience the standard symptoms of a sprained wrist.

What Causes a Sprained Wrist?

Sprained wrists often occur after a fall, as sticking your hand out to break your fall can bend your wrist back toward your forearm. This sudden force causes the ligaments in your wrist to overstretch themselves, potentially leading to tears. Your wrist might also become strained because of blunt trauma or a sudden twisting motion.

The injury is particularly common among athletes like gymnasts, skiers, skateboarders, and basketball and baseball players. It’s also possible to sustain a wrist sprain if you’re walking on an icy or slippery surface, as you might lose your balance and attempt to catch yourself with your hands. Additionally, patients who have a high fall risk might be more likely to incur this type of injury.

How To Tell If You Have a Sprained Wrist

You might be able to tell if you have a sprained wrist by identifying certain symptoms. Most patients experience pain and a popping or tearing sensation at the time of the injury. You might also notice:

How Doctors Diagnose Wrist Sprains

It can be difficult to determine if you have a sprained wrist on your own, as symptoms can present themselves differently in each patient. There are also various types of wrist sprains, and the symptoms of a wrist sprain might be similar to those of other injuries. Thus, it’s crucial for you to see an orthopedic doctor to get a proper diagnosis.

When you go to an appointment for an injured wrist, the doctor will normally start by asking about your medical history. They will inquire about previous wrist injuries you’ve had and allow you to explain how you sustained your current injury. Be prepared to describe the incident and how your wrist felt at the time of the injury. You might also indicate any at-home treatments you’ve tried and note how they improved or worsened your pain.

During the physical portion of the exam, the doctor will carefully examine your wrist. They might identify tender areas and test your range of motion. They might also order imaging tests to confirm their diagnosis. An X-ray won’t show the ligaments themselves but can indicate a ligament injury if your wrist bones are out of alignment. Other useful imaging tests include MRIs, CT scans, and arthrograms.

In addition to determining which ligaments are injured, your doctor can determine the degree of the overall sprain. A Grade 1 sprain indicates a mild case of overly stretched ligaments. Grade 2 indicates a partial ligament tear, while Grade 3 indicates a complete tear.

Sprained vs. Fractured/Broken Wrist

Sprained and fractured or broken wrists cause many of the same symptoms, making it difficult to tell the difference. The key difference is that a sprain affects the ligaments while a fracture or break affects the bones. Subtle differences in symptoms include:

Treatment for a Sprained Wrist

If your doctor determines you have a sprained wrist, they might recommend conservative treatment for a Grade 1 or Grade 2 injury. Common treatments include rest, cold packs, compression, splints, over-the-counter pain medication, and stretching exercises. A more severe injury may require surgical intervention to reconnect the ligaments to the bone.


Wrist pain following a fall or another traumatic event is something you should take seriously. If you let it go untreated, the pain might persist or even progress into a more serious injury. Schedule an appointment at The Hand and Wrist Institute to get a diagnosis from an orthopedic specialist. Our team is eager to develop an individualized treatment plan and help relieve your pain so you can return to your normal activities.


Close-Up Photo of a Woman Stretching Her Wrist by Kindel Media is licensed with Pexels License

Dr. John Knight
Dr. John Knight

Dr. Knight is a renowned hand, wrist and upper extremity surgeon with over 25 years of experience. Dr. Knight is a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon and Fellowship trained. Dr Knight has appeared on CNN, The Doctors TV, Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Oxygen network and more.