What Are Ankle Sprains?
Ankle sprains are common podiatric injuries that occur when one or more ligaments that support and connect the ankle bones either stretch beyond their limits or tear. While ankle sprains can happen to anyone, they frequently affect athletes, particularly runners and those that practice other high-impact activities.
This type of injury can cause significant pain and inflammation and typically also impacts a person’s ability to bear weight on the affected leg. While ankle sprains are common, serious sprains may not heal properly without appropriate treatment and should be promptly evaluated by a foot and ankle specialist. Untreated, serious sprains can decrease ankle stability and range of motion and may make a person more susceptible to future ankle injuries.
Medical evaluation by a specialist in podiatry is particularly important when pain from a suspected sprain persists for more than a few days, as sprains and fractures may present with similar symptoms. In some cases, a sprain and fracture may co-exist; however, these injuries typically occur independently of one another.
Common Causes of Ankle Sprains
Excessive twisting or rolling of the ankle can cause ankle sprains. Usually, the injury occurs as a result of:
- Participating in sports that involve running and rapid lateral or twisting movements, such as tennis, basketball, football, and soccer
- Losing balance on an uneven surface
- Tripping or falling
- Landing awkwardly after jumping
- Stepping into a hole or depression in uneven ground
- Applying excessive force to the ankle joint
Although ankle sprains most commonly affect people who participate in high-impact activities, they can also affect people who don’t play sports. Risk factors for this type of injury include wearing ill-fitting shoes, wearing high heels, and being in poor physical condition. Once a person suffers any type of ankle injury, they’re also more likely to suffer a sprain later on.
Symptoms of Ankle Sprains
Inflammation is the most common indicator of an ankle sprain. Other common symptoms of an overly stretched or torn ankle ligament include:
- Pain when attempting to bear weight on the affected ankle
- Difficulty walking
- Bruising throughout the ankle area
- Tender, swollen, red ankle area
- Ankle instability
- Decreased range of motion in the ankle
Types of Ankle Sprains
All ankle sprains involve injury to one or more of the ankle’s ligaments, but some sprains are more severe than others. These injuries are classified into the following grades:
- Grade 1 sprain: This type of strain involves minimal ligament stretching and no tearing. Recovery typically takes one to three weeks.
- Grade 2 sprain: This type of strain involves a partial tear of a ligament caused by significant stretching. Recovery can take three to six weeks, depending on the severity of the injury.
- Grade 3 sprain: This type of strain involves a complete tear of one or more ankle ligaments and can take several months to heal completely.
How a Podiatric Physician Diagnoses Ankle Sprains
When a person has moderate to severe ankle pain and swelling, a foot and ankle specialist can help. A podiatric physician will perform a physical exam of the ankle and assess the individual’s symptoms. They may also conduct imaging tests to determine whether a sprain or fracture is present.
Treatment Options for Ankle Sprains
Most ankle sprains respond well to conservative treatment and at-home care. Very rarely, ligament repair surgery may be necessary to treat severe ankle sprains.
Generally, however, foot and ankle specialists recommend employing the PRICE method during the first 24–48 hours post-injury. PRICE is an acronym for:
- Protection. A splint, brace, or pair of crutches may be necessary to limit a person’s ability to move their injured ankle while it heals.
- Rest. Limiting activities that place stress on the sprain (jumping, running, working out) will help keep the ankle stable and allow it to heal.
- Ice. Applying ice to the ankle in 20-minute increments will help reduce inflammation and discomfort.
- Compression. Gently wrapping the ankle in an elastic bandage can help decrease swelling and discomfort while the ligament heals.
- Elevation. Elevating the ankle above the level of the heart while sitting and lying down will help minimize fluid buildup around the injured ligament.
Generally, over-the-counter pain medications, such as naproxen sodium, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen, are sufficient to manage any discomfort associated with ankle sprains. After pain and swelling subside, physical therapy or at-home ankle exercises are typically necessary to restore the affected ankle’s strength, flexibility, and range of motion.