Ankle Sprain

Written by Elly Dock and Winnie Yu | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

An ankle sprain occurs when there has been significant injury to the ligaments that surround and connect the bones of the leg to the foot. The injury typically occurs when you accidentally twist or turn your ankle inappropriately. All ligaments have a specific range of motion and boundaries that allow them to keep joints stabilized. When ligaments surrounding the ankle are pressed past these boundaries, it creates a sprain. Sprains are typically found on ligaments surrounding the outer area of the ankle.

You should always seek medical attention for an ankle sprain. Only your doctor can determine the severity of the injury and determine a proper course of treatment. It can take several weeks or months for an ankle sprain to completely heal.

What Causes an Ankle Sprain?

During physical activity, the ankle may twist inward as a result of sudden or unexpected movement, which cases tears to the ligaments surrounding the ankle. Some swelling or bruising may occur as a result of these tears, causing discomfort when you place weight on the affected area. Tendons, cartilage, and blood vessels may also be damaged due to the sprain.

Anyone, at any age, can develop an ankle sprain. Participating in sports, walking on uneven surfaces, or even wearing inappropriate footwear are all common causes of this type of injury.

What Are The Symptoms of An Ankle Sprain?

You may have an ankle sprain if you notice:

  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • bruising
  • ankle pain
  • inability to bear weight on affected ankle
  • skin discoloration
  • stiffness

The ankle can sustain many different types of injury. It’s important to visit a doctor to determine whether the injury is a sprain or something more severe.

How Is An Ankle Sprain Diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine which ligaments have been torn. Imaging tests, such as X-rays, may be ordered to rule out a bone fracture. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) tests may be done if the doctor suspects that there has been serious injury or damage, including:

  • bone chipping
  • severe injury to the ligaments
  • damage on the surface of the joint

If the ligaments have been completely torn, the surface of the ankle joint may be injured as well. If this is the case, your ankle may be unstable even after the injury heals. 

How Do You Treat An Ankle Sprain?

Treatment is important to promote recovery and prevent further discomfort. Your doctor may provide you with some tips and items that you can use to care for the sprain while you recover. It is important not to put weight on the injured area while you are recovering from an ankle sprain.

You may be able to treat mild sprains at home. Recommended home care treatments include:

  • Use elastic bandages (such as an ACE bandage) to wrap your ankle.
  • Wear a brace to support your ankle.
  • Use crutches if they have been provided.
  • Keep your foot raised above your heart with pillows when resting or sleeping to reduce swelling.
  • Use ibuprofen (such as Advil) or acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) to manage swelling and pain.
  • Get plenty of rest and do not put weight on your ankle.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend applying ice to the injured area as soon as you can to reduce swelling. On the first day, you should apply the ice every 10 to 15 minutes every hour. Afterward, it should be applied every three to four hours for the next two days. (NIH, 2011)

Your doctor may advise you to stay off of your injured ankle until the pain subsides. For mild sprains, this may take a week to 10 days, while more severe sprains may take up to several weeks.

Surgery is rare, but may be performed in cases where damage to ligaments is severe.

What Is The Long-Term Outlook?

In most cases, an ankle sprain is not very serious and will completely heal with proper treatment. The amount of time required for full recovery will depend on the severity of the sprain. Most ankle sprains take a few weeks to fully heal. A more severe sprain may take many months.

Although pain and swelling may eventually stop, you should expect that your injured ankle will not be as stable as your unaffected ankle. Your doctor may suggest exercises to help strengthen the ankle. However, you should not proceed with exercises until your doctor has given you permission.

How Do I Prevent Ankle Sprain?

You can lower your risk for future sprains by:

  • wrapping the affected ankle in an elastic bandage
  • wearing a brace, if necessary
  • strengthening exercises
  • avoiding high heels
  • warming up before exercise
  • wearing good footwear
  • paying attention to surfaces you’re on
  • slowing or stopping activities when you feel fatigued
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