Ankle sprains are the most common foot and ankle sports injury, with millions of incidents in the United States each year. Because your ankles have to support almost all of your weight while providing the flexibility and power for motion, they are especially vulnerable to damage.
Whether your sprain is relatively minor or painfully severe, you should always have a podiatrist examine a painful ankle as soon as possible after the injury. Ankle sprains are serious injuries, and immediate attention can help you recover faster and prevent the development of chronic pain.
What Is an Ankle Sprain?
An ankle sprain can refer to any injury to any of the various ligaments that support your ankle. Ligaments are fibrous connective tissues that attach bones to other bones, and play a crucial role in stabilizing joints. The most common type of ankle sprain involves stretching and tearing in ligaments along the outside of your ankle.
Ankle sprains are usually classified into one of three grades, depending on severity:
- Grade 1: slight stretching and microscopic tearing of ligament fibers produces mild tenderness and swelling.
- Grade 2: One or more ligaments are partially torn. You notice moderate levels of tenderness and swelling, and the ankle may feel loose when moved in certain directions by a doctor.
- Grade 3: One or more ligaments are completely torn. Significant tenderness, swelling, and bruising are present, and the ankle may feel unstable.
Pain and swelling may be less noticeable if you have had other ankle sprains in the past. In such cases, the main symptom may be wobbliness and instability in the ankle as you walk.
What Causes Ankle Sprains?
Ankle sprains occur when the ligaments that support the joint are suddenly stretched beyond their normal range of motion. They are common among athletes who play sports involving running, jumping, and/or sudden changes of direction. However, any sudden fall, twisting motion, or impact can cause a sprain—for example, tumbling off of a curb or stair.
Some people may be genetically predisposed to weak ankles, which increases the risk of injury. A history of previous ankle injuries, especially those that have not been treated properly, can also increase your risk.
Can I Treat an Ankle Sprain at Home?
Because ankle sprains are so common, many people attempt to treat them at home—especially for milder grade 1 or 2 sprains. However, we strongly discourage this. You should always see an ankle specialist as soon as possible, for two significant reasons:
- If your ankle sprain is not treated and rehabilitated properly, the injury may not heal properly. This greatly increases your risk of reinjury, as well as developing chronic weakness, wobbliness, and instability.
- Ankle sprains often occur alongside other injuries, including ankle fractures. The sprain may “mask” these other injuries so that you don’t notice them right away—but a podiatrist will uncover them during the examination and make sure they are treated properly.
How Are Ankle Sprains Treated?
Most ankle sprains can be treated through conservative means. Common strategies include:
- RICE therapy (rest, ice, compression, and elevation).
- Medications, including both over-the-counter and (if necessary) prescription anti-inflammatories.
- Physical therapy. Our team will prescribe specific exercises to help aid in healing and increase your strength and range of motion.
- Immobilization. A grade 3 sprain may require up to 3 weeks in a short leg cast. Grade 2 sprains may require some time in a brace or walking boot.
The Northwest Extremity Specialists can also offer more advanced conservative therapies, such as shockwave and regenerative medicine, for cases that require them. Surgery is rarely required, except in the most extreme circumstances.
If you have sustained an ankle injury, please stay off your feet and contact the office closest to you immediately for an examination.