Ankles sprains are, almost certainly, the most common traumatic lower limb injury suffered by Americans. The rates are high across ages and activity levels—from youth athletes to weekend warriors to working adults and even retirees. Complications from ankle sprains can follow if not treated correctly.
The good thing is that, in many cases, minor sprains can be treated at home without special equipment.
The bad thing is that, because sprains are both common and usually mild, far too many people shrug off sprains entirely and grossly underestimate the kind of long-term physical damage that even a “mild” sprain can do to your ankle.
The unfortunate truth? If you don’t take care of your sprained ankle quickly and appropriately, you could be taking your first steps down a path of chronic pain, instability, and recurring sprains.
Why It Only Takes One Sprain
You may have noticed that, while some athletes and active people have never gotten an ankle sprain, others seem to get them over and over again. (Maybe you’re among them.)
That’s almost certainly not an accident.
Ankle sprains, even mild ones, involve significant stretching (if not outright tearing) of the ligaments that hold your ankle in place and provide stability to your steps. Although any individual sprain can fall anywhere on the spectrum from very mild (no tearing, mild tenderness and pain, can still walk) to very severe (full tear, severe pain), every sprain requires some amount of attention, care, and time to allow the tendon fibers to heal themselves.
What often happens, unfortunately, is that people don’t give themselves enough care and time. They try to “walk it off,” play through an injury, or return to high-impact exercise too soon.
When you do this, the ligaments never really heal themselves all the way. Or, perhaps, the sprain itself heals, but the ankle is never rehabbed back to its pre-injury level of strength and flexibility.
When you put your ankle back in harm’s way before it’s ready to face that challenge, your risk of suffering another sprain becomes greatly elevated. The more times you repeat this cycle, the less likely your ligaments will fully heal after each injury. Ultimately, you could develop chronic instability and poor balance due to overstretched and weakened ligaments, as well as chronic pain and arthritis within the ankle joint itself.
Containing the Damage: What to Do When You Sprain Your Ankle
The way you respond to a broken ankle, both in the immediate hours after the injury as well as over the course of your recovery, can have a significant effect on how well you heal—and how likely you are to suffer more sprains in the future.
First, discontinue any strenuous activity and avoid putting weight on the ankle as much as possible. Follow the RICE approach for at least the first 2-3 days after your injury:
- Rest your foot. Avoid any activities that cause discomfort.
- Ice the area. It’s best to get an ice pack on your ankle as soon as you can after the injury for about 15-20 minutes, then repeat 3-4 times per day. Wrap the ice pack in a thin towel to protect your skin.
- Compress the ankle using an elastic bandage, if you have one. Don’t wrap so tight that you cut off circulation. (If you aren’t comfortable with this, you can skip this step.)
- Elevate the ankle, ideally above heart level if you can. Prop it up on a couple of pillows when you sleep or relax on the couch.
You should also call our office as soon as you can after the injury, and tell us about your condition and symptoms. Depending on your situation, we may advise you to come in for an appointment, or just provide you with some home care advice and guidance.
You should also call us immediately to schedule an appointment if you notice significant pain, swelling, bruising, or difficulty with walking—or if you feel that your sprain isn’t fully responding to home care.
If you do come in, be reassured that most ankle sprains do not require surgery (although it is more likely to be required if you’ve had multiple sprains). Depending on the severity, we may recommend various tools to protect or immobilize the ankle during the healing process (brace, short cast, walking boot, etc.).
We’ll also give you a detailed breakdown of when you can start rehab, what kinds of exercises you should do, and when you can return to various levels of activity. While we realize it’s always tempting to cut corners—especially if you feel that your recovery is ahead of schedule—sticking to the plan is important if you want the best probability of returning to 100% strength and flexibility in the ankle.
Preventing the Next Sprain
Once you’re back to full strength, you can reduce your risk of reinjury by following some common-sense preventative measures:
- Always wear appropriate shoe gear. Choose sport-specific shoes that fit your feet properly.
- Replace athletic shoes at least yearly, or more often if they are worn down. For runners, this typically happens around the 300-400 mile mark.
- Warm up and stretch your feet and ankles before and after exercise.
- Wear an athletic ankle brace, tape, or supportive wrap during exercise for a little extra bracing and stability, especially if you’ve suffered a sprain in the past.
- Avoid running on uneven or unstable surfaces. Avoid excessively hilly terrain if you can.
- Do balance exercises every day.
- Do leg and ankle strengthening exercises regularly.
- Avoid rapid increases in your exercise or training program. Prepare your body gradually to new levels of intensity.
- Listen to your body. If your ankles are feeling painful or unstable, slow down and re-assess the situation. If it keeps happening, give us a call.
We are happy to provide you with any guidance you need to help prevent unfortunate foot or ankle injuries.
So don’t let ankle sprains keep you from having an active and enjoyable summer—and if you do sprain your ankle, please don’t let a careless response to treatment and rehab increase your risk of long-term problems. We can help!
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Miyazaki, call us today at (510) 647-3744.