What To Do If You Sprain Your Ankle

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ankle sprains

It is bound to happen at some point. You fall down a step or two. Or you step on uneven ground and your ankle rolls under you. Or you're like many and are just a little clumsy!

Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries to occur in the lower body. While some people will require supervised medical management, many can improve through conservative treatment and following activity guidelines as soon as they are injured.

How to Recover From a Sprain Quickly

If you think you’ve sprained your ankle, remember the acronym POLICE to help guide your treatment immediately after the injury and maximize your recovery time. Many people can recover from an ankle sprain within a few weeks of injury by following these guidelines.

Protection -- Minimizing and modifying activity shortly after injury can go a long way after spraining an ankle. Some people may need assistive devices such as crutches or the use of a walking boot to help protect the ankle as it begins to heal.

Optimal Loading -- Progressive loading and activity after injury can help with gradually introducing motion to the foot and ankle. In general, let your symptoms be your guide to increasing activity after an ankle sprain. Recent research suggests that early, gentle range of motion exercises help with healing. Try to gently “pump” your ankle up and down, make circles with your feet, and wiggle your toes often.

Ice -- Intermittent use of ice throughout the day may help with lessening pain in the early phase of healing. The usual recommendation is 15 to 20 minutes of ice to help with decreasing pain. Do not apply ice directly to the skin. Ice is best, especially for the first 48 hours after injury.

Compression -- Wrapping a stretchable elastic bandage around your foot and ankle can help minimize swelling after injury. If you’re going to wrap your ankle, it is best to put the bandage on first thing in the morning, and then take it off at bedtime. You may need to adjust the amount of compression based on your symptoms. Start the wrap down by your toes and work your way up the ankle and then above the joint. You should be able to slip two fingers under the elastic bandage and still have good feeling and circulation in your toes.

Elevation -- Propping the ankle up when sitting or lying down can also help with minimizing swelling after injury. Try to elevate your foot, if possible, above the level of your heart. When your foot is down, the blood rushes down and gets trapped, leading to more swelling and bruising. We especially encourage elevation when icing the ankle to help with pain and swelling.

When To See a Physician for a Sprained Ankle

If you are unable to bear weight on your leg, are having severe pain, numbness, have signs of exquisite tenderness or high levels of swelling and bruising after injury, call your physician. They may want to order an X-ray to rule out a fracture of the foot or ankle.

Ligaments do not show up on X-rays but if the X-ray is negative, doctors can manipulate your ankle to help determine the severity of your sprain. The doctor might prescribe physical therapy to help rehabilitate your ankle.  

When Symptoms of Sprained Ankle Don’t Go Away

Up to 40 percent of people who sprain their ankle have persistent symptoms, which may include pain, stiffness, swelling and instability of the ankle.

Additionally, if you sprain your ankle, you’re more likely to sustain another one in the future. This is especially true for athletes.

Seeking care from a rehabilitation professional, such as a physical therapist, can help you improve these symptoms, recover from your injury and decrease your risk of re-injury.

Your physical therapist can help guide you with an individualized rehabilitation program that includes stretching, strengthening and balance training — all of which have been shown to help people maximize function and stay active and healthy after an ankle sprain.

There are also a few things you can do the help avoid spraining your ankle in the first place. Exercises such as heel-toe raises, balance training, calf stretches, warming up before physical activity and wearing properly fitting supportive shoes all can help.

Elayna Theiss, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, is a clinical specialist physical therapist at UH Mayfield Village Health Campus.

Sandra Conochan, PTA, ATC is a senior physical therapy assistant at UH Richmond Medical Center.

Related Links

The highly trained rehabilitation specialists at University Hospitals help people of all ages regain independence, function and confidence after an illness or injury. Within our centers for rehab services, experienced physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and other experts work one-on-one with each patient to help them reach their personal goals and improve activities of daily living. Learn more about rehabilitation services at UH.

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