Almost everybody has sprained an ankle at one point or another, and athletes are especially familiar with this common injury. Understanding why it happens, and how to help prevent and treat a sprained ankle can help you avoid this type of injury and manage it better when it does happen.
What Is a Sprained Ankle?
A lateral ankle sprain, a rolled ankle, and a twisted ankle are all essentially the same thing: torn or stretched ligaments in the ankle joint. Ligaments are the strong connective tissues that attach bones to other bones. The ankle is made up of three bones (the tibia, fibula, and talus) that create two joints (the ankle and the syndesmosis).
Multiple major ligaments connect these bones to stabilize the joints:
- The lateral ligament complex:
- Anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL)
- Calcaneofibular ligament
- Posterior talofibular ligament (PTFL)
- Deltoid ligament
- Anterior inferior tibiofibular ligament (AITFL)
- Two posterior fibular ligaments:
- Posterior inferior tibiofibular ligament (PITFL)
- Transverse ligament
- Interosseous ligament
The most commonly injured tissues in the ankle are in the lateral ligament complex. These are the ligaments that are situated on the outside of the ankle. When you turn an ankle while walking or running, these ligaments become stretched, and the fibers can be partially or completely torn, resulting in a sprain.
How to Treat a Sprained Ankle
A full ligament tear is a serious sprain injury that should be treated by a medical professional. Most other types of minor sprains can usually be treated at home or with the help of a physical therapist using the following treatment approach.
Reduce Your Activity Level
“Walking it off” is not a great idea when it comes to sprained ankles. If you try to do too much before your body has fully healed, you may prolong the recovery time and possibly cause more damage to the affected ligaments. You may also create long-term weakness that leads to future injuries. In the first few days after spraining an ankle, try to stay off it completely until you can walk without pain. This might require crutches or a stabilizing boot that reduces the pressure on the joint.
Apply Therapeutic Cold
Cryotherapy, which is the application of therapeutic cold, can help naturally reduce pain and swelling. Applying ice immediately after the injury may help control the body’s natural inflammatory response and slow down cellular activity. Continue to apply ice for 20 minutes every hour for the first few days. You can also talk to your physical therapist about using a cryotherapy system to more effectively deliver therapeutic cold. A body-conforming wrap that delivers consistent cold to your ankle joint from every angle helps ensure deeper penetration and longer-lasting benefits.
Use Rapid Contrast Therapy
If you are working with a physical therapist, ask them about using rapid contrast therapy for your ankle sprain recovery. Alternating therapeutic heat and cold may help increase circulation, which helps your body heal faster. The more oxygen and nutrients your healing tissues receive, the faster you may recover.
Do Physical Therapy Exercises
As you recover from a sprained ankle, doing physical therapy exercises may help stretch and strengthen the affected ligaments and muscles. These exercises can also improve range of motion to help you walk better and get back to normal activity more quickly. Your physical therapist might recommend exercises such as:
- Tracing the alphabet with your toe
- Keeping the foot flat on the floor while moving the knee
- Gently stretching the ankle by pulling the foot forward with a towel
- Stretching the calf and Achilles tendon
- Balancing exercises
How to Prevent a Sprained Ankle
While you can’t always avoid twisting an ankle on an uneven surface or the occasional misstep, strengthening and stretching the tissues in the ankle joint can help you prevent sprains. Always stretch before and after physical activity, and include ankle-strengthening exercises as part of your workout routine. If you have a history of ankle injuries, talk to your doctor about whether using a brace or taping your ankle would be a good idea.
In addition to learning how to treat a sprained ankle, it’s a good idea to understand what to do when you strain a muscle. Our free tip sheet for Selecting the Right At-Home Muscle Strain Therapy has all the details, so download it today.