How to Care for a Sprained Ankle

Doing your weekly trail run and suddenly feel your ankle go sideways as you land on a tree root? Doing jump squats on an uneven surface and immediately sense your ankle roll inwards? Chances are you may have sprained it.

When it comes to ankle sprains, the degree of severity can vary, and therefore so can the treatment and medical evaluation needed. With the right knowledge and helpful diagnostic and treatment tips, you can make sure your potential injury receives the attention it needs.

What is a Sprained Ankle?

The ankle joint connects three major bones – the tibia (shin bone), fibula (smaller lower leg bone), and talus (small bone between the heel and lower leg bones). Tough bands of fibrous tissue hold these bones together, stabilize the joint, and help the ankle complete a fluid range of motion – those tissues are called ligaments. When those ligaments become stretched, strained, or even tear, this qualifies as a “sprain.”

A sprained ankle can result from seemingly minor actions like tripping and falling, or more serious movements like rotating, rolling, or twisting the ankle joint. Impact from an event like a car or bike accident may also result in a sprained ankle, if not a more serious bone fracture. For an injury guide on sprained ankles – click here.

Symptoms of a Sprained Ankle

The acute nature of an ankle sprain means that symptoms are typically felt almost immediately. Swelling and inflammation around the ankle area in addition to pain, tenderness, and limited range of motion are good indicators that a ligament has been sprained. It may be hard to bear weight on the affected ankle as well.
Occasionally, fractures of an ankle bone are mistaken as severe sprains. If additional symptoms like severe swelling, bruising or other skin discoloration, bleeding, numbness, inability to bear weight after several days, and visible deformity or dislocation accompany the injury, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Treating a Sprained Ankle

With a physical exam and potential imaging tests (x-ray, etc), a medical doctor can evaluate your injury and make a diagnosis to get you on a path to recovery. Minor sprains can typically be treated at home with:

  • Resting the affected ankle and avoiding using it (possibly using crutches)

  • Elevating the affected ankle to relieve swelling

  • Applying ice packs 10 to 20 minutes at a time, 4 to 5 times a day to numb spasming nerve endings and constrict blood flow temporarily

  • Wearing compression sleeves, an ankle brace, or wrapping the ankle to address inflammation and aid recovery

  • Taking over the counter NSAIDs to help with pain and swelling

More severe ankle sprains which limit your ability to bear any weight on the leg at all may require a mobility aid like crutches and further return visits to the doctor. Torn tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and blood vessels can all be damaged with a severe ankle sprain, and result in accompanying stiffness over the next several weeks as you recover. Rarely is surgical intervention and physical therapy/rehabilitation required for a severe sprain.

Risk Factors for Sprained Ankles

While sprained ankles are common everyday use injuries, there are ways to prevent yourself from incurring a painful and limiting injury like this one. Risk factors for sprained ankles include:

  • Playing high impact sports like trail running or soccer

  • Wearing high heels

  • Wearing old and unsupportive footwear (especially when exercising)

  • Walking or running on uneven surfaces

  • Weak and inflexible ankle joints

Strengthening your ankles with supportive stretches and exercises, as well as wearing shoes that stabilize and reinforce the joint are your best bet for avoiding sprains. Once injured, even after recovery an ankle joint may not return to the form and strength it once had. If you are ever concerned you have sprained your ankle, consult a medical doctor for evaluation to rule out any other potential causes for your pain or discomfort (like fractures or bone chipping).

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