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Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries. In fact, nearly everyone has rolled their ankle at some point. Fortunately, close to 90 percent of people recover in a few weeks, allowing most people to get back to the things they enjoy. Read on to learn answers to common questions about preventing and treating ankle sprains.
What causes a sprained ankle?
The ankle joint is supported by tissue called ligaments that help keep it steady during movement. An ankle sprain occurs any time ankle ligaments get stretched or torn. This typically occurs if you:
- Roll or twist your ankle while playing sports
- Trip on an uneven surface, like a curb or steps
- Lose your balance or land a jump incorrectly
Sometimes called an ankle strain or twisted ankle, this injury can range from mild to severe. Some sprained ankles involve a partial tear to ankle ligaments, while others cause the ligament to separate completely. For the most severe ankle sprains, walking or weight-bearing can cause excruciating pain.
Who is at risk of spraining their ankle?
Anyone can sprain an ankle at any age. Unfortunately, if you sprain your ankle once, you increase the risk of future ankle sprains. And if you experience repeated ankle sprains, you may develop chronic ankle instability. A chronic ankle sprain can lead to other problems, like arthritis, so it's important to seek care to address the root of the problem.
What are the symptoms of an ankle sprain?
For ankle sprains, it's common to experience:
- Mild to severe pain around the ankle joint
- Difficulty bearing weight or walking
If you injured your foot and you can't walk on it or walking makes your sprained ankle worse, you should consider getting an x-ray to rule out a fracture. If you have a fractured ankle, your ankle bones would require different treatment.
Diagnosis and treatment.
When should I seek care for an ankle sprain?
If you have an injured ligament or ankle sprain, rest will usually help it heal on its own within four to six weeks or sooner. The body has an incredible way of repairing itself, but it needs time. Jumping back into intense exercise too quickly can cause an ankle sprain to worsen, which may require more invasive treatment. If you have mild to moderate pain, you can also take anti-inflammatory medication (like ibuprofen) and elevate your foot.
If you can't walk on your foot without extreme pain, or if it doesn't seem to improve after a few days, you should see a doctor. An orthopedist with specialty training in caring for foot and ankle injuries can help determine the proper treatment.
How are ankle sprains diagnosed?
If you or your doctor suspect you have an ankle sprain, they'll perform a physical exam and ask a few questions, including:
- When did your pain start?
- Where is the pain located?
- What makes the pain worse? What makes the pain feel better?
Because an ankle fracture can also cause pain and swelling, your doctor will want to ensure there isn't damage to any bones in your foot. To rule out a fracture, your doctor may order an x-ray which will allow them to get a better view of the inside of your foot.
How is an ankle sprain treated?
If you have a mild to moderate ankle sprain, your doctor will likely instruct you to rest and start some home exercises. Some patients benefit from physical therapy, which can help to restore range of motion and strengthen the foot as ligaments heal. Other times, you should participate in rehabilitation under the guidance of a trained physical therapist. Most sprained ankles resolve themselves with a bit of rest, but you should follow up with your doctor if you don't notice any improvements or pain is getting worse.
Do sprained ankles require surgery?
Most people with sprained ankles successfully recover without surgery. However, if your sprain doesn't heal on its own with conservative treatments or if you develop chronic ankle sprains, surgery may be a safe and effective option to eliminate your pain and get you back in action. Although rare, some patients benefit from arthroscopic surgery or ankle reconstruction to repair the damaged ligaments around the ankle.
When can I return to my favorite sports?
Most mild sprained ankles heal within a few days or weeks. Generally, most people can return to activity when the pain and swelling is gone. However, severe sprains may take a few months to recover fully. If you have a severe sprain, talk to your doctor about when you can return to more intense exercise and what you can do in the meantime to encourage healing.
Can an ankle sprain be prevented?
You can't always prevent ankle sprains, but there are things you can do to minimize your risk, including:
- Wearing supportive shoes
- Being aware of your surroundings
- Watching your footing
- Strength training
If you do sprain your ankle, be sure to recognize and treat it so that you don't develop chronic ankle pain and repeated sprains. Trust the healing process and don't overdo it, and your sprain will most likely heal within a short time.