What Are Ankle Sprains?

A sudden sideways motion, a twist, or a misstep. When your foot lands off balance, muscles may give way, allowing the ankle joint to move too far. If ligaments connecting the foot and anklebones overstretch or tear, a sprain is the result. These sudden injuries cause pain both at the same time they occur and throughout the healing process. Depending on the sprain, swelling and bruising may extend from your ankle into your foot. With proper care, however, sprains can heal correctly. And in many cases, you can reduce the risk of reinjury.

Left untreated, sprains may not heal properly, making reinjury more likely.

How Are Ankle Sprains Treated?

Before recommending treatment, your doctor examines your ankle and foot. He or she feels for damaged ligaments, inflamed tendons, and any displaced bones or joints. X-rays of your ankle may be taken to rule out a fracture. Depending on your injury, treatment may range from pain control to immobilization of the joint. If the sprain is severe or if a bone is damaged, surgery may be needed.

Pain Control

For a mild to moderate sprain, a few days of home care will help speed up healing. Remember to use RICE (which stands for rest, ice, compress, and elevate) to reduce pain and swelling.

  • Rest the sprained ankle. Do not stand on it for at least a day or two.
  • Ice the sprain as often as possible. Apply ice to the injury for 20 minutes. Remove the cold pack and wait another 20 minutes. Then ice again. Protect your skin by placing a bandage or thin towel between the ice and your body.
  • Compress (wrap) the swollen ankle with an elastic bandage.
  • Elevate the sprained ankle above your heart level.

To help reduce pain and swelling, your doctor may suggest using a medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, in addition to RICE. To test the injured joint and ligaments, your doctor may hold your foot while gently pulling the heel forward.

Immobilize Severe Sprains

If damage or pain is severe, your doctor may tape, splint, or cast the sprain. Once immobilized, the torn tissues can rest and heal in the proper position. You may need to use crutches temporarily if your foot cannot support weight.

If Surgery is Needed

In some cases, a sprain may completely tear a ligament or pull it away from the bone. This type of injury may require surgery. After surgery, your foot will be placed in a cast to ensure proper healing.

What Helps Recovery?

Depending on the severity of sprain, your ankle may hurt for a month or more. Once healing is well under way, however, your doctor may suggest exercises to strengthen the ankle. If swelling results, ice and elevation can help control it.

Exercise Your Ankle

Talk to your doctor before starting to exercise your ankle. If your doctor agrees, increase flexibility by doing your ABCs. Use your foot to spell out the alphabet in the air. Later you may want to try the strength-building exercise below.

Sit on the ground with the injured ankle straight in front of you. Bend your other leg. Place an elastic band or tubing around the foot of the ankle you sprained. Slowly point and relax your toes.

Control swelling

As you return to normal activities, your ankle may swell-especially after exercise or by the end of the day. Control this late-stage swelling with ice and elevation. Think of it as an excuse to put your feet up. Raise your ankle above heart level and apply ice or a cold pack, such as a bag of frozen peas, to the swollen area.

Can Sprains Be Prevented?

The best way to prevent reinjury is to give a sprain time to heal fully. Once you’re back on your feet, think before you move. Choose the right shoe for the activity. And remember to wear any splints, braces, or orthoses (custom-made shoe inserts) prescribed by your doctor.

Protect Your Feet

Give your ankle the support it needs. Follow these tips to help prevent reinjury:

  • Wear high-topped, laced-up shoes for extra stability.
  • Choose shoes with cushioned insoles if you walk or run on roads or pavement.
  • Be careful walking and running on rough ground to avoid tripping.
  • Vary the direction of your route to avoid overusing your muscles. And stretch both before and after you exercise.

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