What Causes Ankle Pain?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Ankle pain refers to any type of pain or discomfort in your ankles. This pain could be caused by an injury, like a sprain, or by a medical condition, such as arthritis. According to the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS), an ankle... Read More

Ankle pain refers to any type of pain or discomfort in your ankles. This pain could be caused by an injury, like a sprain, or by a medical condition, such as arthritis.

According to the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS), an ankle sprain is one of the most common causes of ankle pain — making up 85 percent of all ankle injuries. A sprain occurs when your ligaments (the tissues that connect bones) tear or get overstretched.

Most ankle sprains are lateral sprains, which occur when your foot rolls, causing your outside ankle to twist toward the ground. This action stretches or rips the ligaments. A sprained ankle often swells and bruises for about seven to fourteen days. However, it may take a few months for a severe injury to heal fully.

Once healed, the sprained ankle is sometimes permanently weaker and less stable than the other ankle. According to a paper published by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the greatest risk factor for ankle sprain is having a previous ankle sprain.

Causes of Ankle Pain

A sprain is a common cause of ankle pain. Pain can also be a result of:

  • arthritis (specifically osteoarthritis)
  • gout
  • nerve damage or injury, such as sciatica
  • blocked blood vessels
  • infection in the joint

A sprain is generally caused when the ankle rolls or twists so that the outside ankle moves toward the ground, tearing the ligaments of the ankle that hold the bones together. Rolling the ankle can also cause damage to the cartilage or tendons of your ankle.

Gout occurs when uric acid builds up in the body. This higher than normal concentration of uric acid (a by-product of the body’s normal breakdown of old cells) can deposit crystals in the joints, causing sharp pain. Pseudogout is a similar condition where calcium deposits build up in the joints. Symptoms of both gout and pseudogout include pain, swelling, and redness.

Arthritis can also cause ankle pain. Arthritis is the inflammation of the joints. Multiple types of arthritis can cause pain in the ankles, but osteoarthritis is the most common. Osteoarthritis is often caused by wear and tear on the joints. The older people are, the more likely they are to develop osteoarthritis.

Septic arthritis is arthritis that is caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. This can cause pain in the ankles, if the ankles are one of the areas infected.

Caring for Ankle Pain at Home

For immediate at-home treatment of ankle pain, the RICE method is recommended. This includes:

  • Rest — Avoid putting weight on your ankle. Try to move as little as possible for the first few days. Use crutches or a cane if you have to walk or move.
  • Ice — Begin by putting a bag of ice on your ankle for at least 20 minutes at a time. Do this three to five times a day for three days after the injury. This helps reduce swelling and numb pain. Give yourself about 90 minutes between icing sessions.
  • Compression — Wrap your injured ankle with an elastic bandage, like an ACE bandage. Do not wrap it so tightly that your ankle becomes numb or that your toes turn blue.
  • Elevation — Whenever possible, keep your ankle raised above heart level on a stack of pillows or other type of support structure.

You can take over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to relieve pain and swelling.

Once your pain subsides, gently exercise your ankle by rotating it in circles. Rotate both directions, and stop if it begins to hurt. You can also use your hands to gently flex the ankle up and down. These exercises will return your range of motion and help exercise your ankle, lowering your risk of re-injury.

If your ankle pain is a result of arthritis, you will not be able to heal or eliminate the pain. However, there are ways you can manage it. It may help to:

  • use topical pain relievers
  • take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation
  • stay physically active and follow a fitness program focusing on moderate exercise
  • practice healthy eating habits
  • stretch to maintain a good range of motion in your joints
  • keep your body weight within a healthy range, which will lessen stress on the joints

Medically reviewed by Steven Kim, MD on September 26, 2015Written by Natalie Phillips


17 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

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