A sprained ankle can be a painful and debilitating injury. Depending on the severity of the sprain, you may be unable to put weight on the affected ankle and it may feel weak and unstable. You may have swelling, bruising and redness around the injury.
Causes of sprained ankles
Ankle sprains happen when your ankle twists, turns or rolls in a way that it is not designed to, forcing the ligaments beyond their normal range of motion. Ligaments normally stabilise the ankle joint but when you sprain your ankle the ligaments become stretched or torn. Most sprained ankles affect the ligaments on the outer side of the ankle.
You can sprain your ankle if you land awkwardly after jumping, or fall, causing your foot to twist over. Someone landing heavily on your foot during a sports activity can also result in an ankle sprain.
Most sprained ankles are mild and begin to feel better within a few days or a week. Following the RICE method (see below) can help to speed the recovery and you are likely to be fully healed within six weeks.
However, severe ankle sprains can take significantly longer to heal. You may need crutches to walk and it may be weeks or months before you make a full recovery.
Diagnosis of sprained ankles
So, how can you tell if your ankle sprain is severe? If you are in severe pain, your doctor may want to refer you for imaging tests to ascertain the extent of ligament damage and to rule out a fracture. Among the scans that might be used for a sprained ankle are:
- X-rays – these are normally used to rule out fractures.
- MRI – this type of scan uses magnets and radio waves to create detailed 3D images of the soft tissues, including ligaments.
- CT – a CT scan takes multiple X-rays which are combined to produce a cross-sectional image of the bony joint.
- Ultrasound – sound waves are used to create real-time images of the joint, including the ligaments and tendons.
Treating sprained ankles
Treatment will depend on how bad the sprain is. Immediately after injury, the RICE method can help to minimise swelling and prevent further damage. This entails:
- Ice – use a covered ice pack for 15-20 minutes after injury
- Compression – compressing the ankle with an elastic bandage can help to minimise swelling but be careful not to wrap it too tightly which can cut off circulation.
- Elevation – keep your ankle raised above the level of your heart. The effect of gravity will help to drain excess fluid, reducing swelling.
Painkillers or anti-inflammatories can help to alleviate some of the pain associated with a sprained ankle. You may need to use an elastic bandage or ankle support brace to stabilise your ankle or, if the sprain is severe, you may need to use crutches as you will need to avoid putting weight on the injured ankle.
Physiotherapy can help you to regain strength and flexibility, once your ankle is strong enough to move again. Rarely, a sprained ankle may require surgery if it fails to heal after rehabilitation and physiotherapy. Surgery can be used to repair the damaged ligament or reconstruct it using tissue from a nearby ligament or tendon.
If you think you have sprained your ankle and it isn’t feeling better after a few days, it is best to seek diagnosis to ensure it is only a sprain. Carrothers Orthopaedics are able to help diagnose, and provide advice and treatment, for ankle sprains to ensure there is no long-term damage.