How to Treat an Ankle Sprain
A sprained ankle is a very common injury, and an occasional minor sprain can be considered part of the simple cost of an active lifestyle. But the swelling and discomfort of even a minor ankle sprain are no picnic, and not all sprains are minor. If you stumble on the sports field or hiking trail and you suspect you may have an ankle sprain, here are a few tips and considerations that can help you assess the severity of your injury and determine what steps to take next.
What Exactly is an Ankle Sprain?
An ankle sprain happens when the ligaments that connect the bones and muscles of the foot are stretched just beyond their limits. This usually takes place when the ankle rolls outward and the foot stays planted or turns in toward the midline of the body. Less often, the ankle rolls inward, but in the case of a sprain, the result is the same: the ligaments are stretched too suddenly and too far, and when this happens, they sustain a degree of tearing and trauma.
In the most mild form of an ankle sprain injury, only one area of one ligament bears the weight and pressure of the motion. If you experience this form, you’ll probably feel a bit of tenderness and swelling that may last for a few days, but you’ll be able to walk on the ankle if you have to. In more severe cases, multiple ligaments are damaged, and the tenderness, stiffness and swelling will be accompanied by bruising. In this case, walking on the injured ankle may be impossible. In the worst cases, the injury may not be just an ankle sprain, and may involve a fully torn ligament or a broken bone.
An average ankle sprain tends to heal completely in about six weeks. But if the healing process seems slow or the injury feels severe, you’ll need to get medical attention and expect a healing time of about four months or longer. An untreated or improperly treated sprain can actually result in lasting damage and even joint problems later in life, so take ankle sprains seriously and give them the attention they need.
How to Treat an Ankle Sprain Immediately After the Incident
When an ankle sprain occurs, the injury is usually apparent right away. Some pain typically occurs the moment the ligaments are stretched, and this moment is usually followed by tenderness, swelling, possible bruising, and difficulty moving or placing weight on the injured foot. If you think you may have sprained your ankle, you’ll have to decide if your injury is severe enough to warrant a trip to the doctor. If you choose to have the ankle examined, the doctor will take a close look at the area, ask you about prior ankle injuries and possibly order some x-rays to make sure you haven’t broken any bones. If your injury is severe, you’ll need to follow your doctor’s instructions, which may involve a prescription for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications or pain killers.
If you decide to treat the injury yourself, you’ll need to focus on the simple rules of RICE—rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Rest: First, stop applying weight to the ankle immediately. Don’t try to get back into the game or finish your run, and don’t keep repeatedly testing the ankle by trying to stand on it. Just let it rest and keep it still.
Ice: Apply ice or a cold pack to the area for about 20 minutes at a time. A bag of frozen vegetables usually works nicely, since it can be shaped to conform to the bones of the ankle. Don’t keep icing the spot repeatedly for more than twenty minutes, since this can actually increase the damage.
Elevation: Try to hold the sprained ankle up higher than the level of your heart. This allows gravity to keep draining fluid away from the area, which can ease some of the pressure and pain associated with inflammation.
Compression: Wrapping the area snugly—but not tightly—can also help to keep excess fluid from building up. Just don’t wrap an ankle sprain too tightly or you’ll reduce circulation to the area, and proper circulation is necessary for oxygen delivery and effective healing.
Support: Follow up on your RICE treatment by making sure your ankle is supported whenever you plan to use it. Study hiking boots or a brace will keep everything aligned and will keep you from placing stress on the damaged part of the ligament.
Long Term Ankle Sprain Rehab
A severe ankle sprain will need more than just a few days of attention and healing and may require a complete rehabilitation process with the guidance of a physical therapist. Again, it’s a good idea to take this process very seriously. If a sprained ankle isn’t rehabilitated properly, the result can be a permanently weak ligament or joint pain that may last for years, or even for life. So as your ankle sprain heals, keep it moving in ways that support full recovery. Talk to your doctor about exercises that can help you 1.) build strength in the ligaments and muscles, 2.) stretch the ligaments and muscles to maximize flexibility and circulation, 3.) build balance and control and 4.) help you retain a full range of motion in the ankle joint. Even without help from a doctor or physical therapist, you can try simple range of motion exercises on your own, like using your toes to trace all the letters of the alphabet.
In most cases, you can expect your sprained ankle to heal completely within a few weeks. But if your recovery seems slow or your pain seems persistent, the healing process may not be happening the way it should. Reach out for medical help, explain your problem clearly, and follow your doctor’s advice. The faster and cleaner your overstretched ligament heals, the faster you can back into the game.