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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

A sprain in the wrist is an injury to its ligaments, the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones to one another inside a joint. Although most people speak of the wrist as a single joint between the forearm and hand, the wrist actually contains many joints that link 15 separate bones. The ligaments that connect these bones can be torn by any extreme twist, bend or impact that suddenly forces the wrist into a position beyond its normal range of motion.

There are three levels of sprain:

  • Mild (Grade I) The wrist's ligaments are stretched or have microscopic tears.

  • Moderate (Grade II) The damage is more severe, and some wrist ligaments may be partially torn.

  • Severe sprains (Grade III) One or more wrist ligaments are entirely torn or torn away from where they normally attach to bones.

Sprains of the wrist are fairly rare in everyday life and in the workplace. Under certain weather conditions, such as during ice storms or after a snowfall, a wrist sprain is commonly caused by a fall in which a person lands on outstretched arm.

For athletes, sprains and other injuries to the wrist or hand account for 3% to 9% of all sports injuries. They are especially common among young males who play football, basketball or baseball. In addition, at least 36 Olympic events have been linked to an unusually high rate of wrist sprains, including roller hockey, baseball, boxing, basketball, volleyball, weightlifting, ice hockey, wrestling and judo.

Among skiers, wrist sprains commonly occur when the skier falls while still gripping a ski pole or still having the pole strapped to the hand. Falls are also a frequent cause of wrist sprains and fractures among snowboarders and inline skaters. In platform divers, wrist sprains can occur when the wrist absorbs an unusually forceful impact as the athlete hits the water. Wrists sprains also occur in racquet sports, wrestling and pole vaulting because the wrist is subjected to extreme twisting movements during these sports.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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