Unlike ankle strains - which affect the muscles - an ankle sprain is an injury to ligaments in the ankle. Some ankle sprains are much worse than others. Ligaments are bands of tissue that connect one bone to another and bind the joints together. Ligaments in the ankle joint provide stability by limiting side-to-side movement.
To determine the severity of an ankle sprain your doctor will consider whether the ligament is stretched, partially torn, or completely torn, as well as on the number of ligaments involved.
Common causes of sprained ankles include falling, twisting suddenly, or trauma that forces the ankle joint out of position. Ankle sprains typically occur while playing sports, wearing improper footwear, or walking and/or running on an uneven surface. Sprains to the ankle can also be a result of weak ankles either from birth or from previous injuries.
- Pain or soreness
- Difficulty walking
Depending on the severity of the sprain, your symptoms may vary in intensity. If you've experienced previous injuries or ankle sprains pain and swelling may not occur. In these cases, you may feel the ankle is wobbly and unsteady when you walk. Treatment is critical, even if there is no pain or swelling. Any ankle sprain – no matter how many previous injuries you've had – requires prompt medical attention.
Why do I need prompt medical attention
Here are a few reasons why you should see a medical professional immediately after the injury:
- In many cases, leaving an ankle sprain untreated may lead to chronic ankle instability and weakness of the leg.
- It's possible that a more severe injury could have occurred along with the sprain. More serious injuries like fractures can have long term negative effects if left untreated.
- In order for the injury to heal properly, rehabilitation of a sprained ankle needs to start right away.
Your doctor will most likely ask you about your medical history and possibly order an X-ray or other imaging diagnostic procedure to help determine the severity of the injury.
Rehabilitation is critical when you have an ankle sprain. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:
- Rest. Do not put weight on the injured ankle for a period of time. Activities like walking can cause further injury.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes and then wait at least 40 minutes before icing again.
- Compression. A medical bandage or elastic wrap may be recommended to control swelling.
- Elevation. To reduce swelling, the ankle should be raised slightly above the level of your heart.
- Early physical therapy. To promote healing and increase your range of motion, your doctor will start you on a rehabilitation program as soon as possible.
- Medications. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may be recommended to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
When Is Surgery Needed?
Surgery may be required to adequately treat a severe ankle sprain/injury. Surgery often involves repairing the damaged ligament(s). Based on the type and severity of your injury as well as your activity level, your surgeon will select the procedure best suited for your case.
Post-surgery, rehabilitation is extremely important. Working with your doctor and completing your rehabilitation program is critical. If done properly, your ankle will heal properly and function will be restored.