What Really Happens When You Sprain Your Ankle

Every day in the United States, over 25,000 people sprain an ankle. Ankle sprains are a very common injury that occurs among people of all ages, and can range in severity. A sprained ankle occurs when the strong ligaments that support the ankle stretch beyond their limit. Most sprains are minor injuries that heal with home treatments such as rest and applying ice. However, it is important to have any ankle injury evaluated by a medical professional to have it properly treated and rehabilitated.

What is an ankle sprain?

Ligaments are strong, fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones. The ligaments in the ankle help to stabilize the joint. Because our feet and ankles are constantly supporting the weight of our bodies, they tend to undergo a lot of wear and tear. We have several ligaments in our ankle that can be stretched or torn when the ankle is forced into an awkward position. Typically, a sprain results when the ankle is rolled inward or outward.

Sprains can range from mild to severe. A mild ankle sprain means a slight stretching and/or microscopic tears of the ligament fibers. A moderate ankle sprain means there has been a partial tear of the ligament. With a severe ankle sprain, the ligament is usually completely torn.

 What causes an ankle sprain?

You’re most likely to sprain your ankle when your toes are on the ground and your heel is raised – activities like running, cross training, or even walking. This position puts tension on the ligaments in your ankle, making them vulnerable to stretches or tears. A fall or sudden force such as landing on an uneven surface can also cause the ankle to turn incorrectly.

Common causes and risk factors include:

  • Running, walking, or cross training on an uneven surface
  • Falling and twisting the ankle
  • Sports that require cutting actions such as basketball, tennis, or soccer

What are the symptoms of an ankle sprain?

The most observed symptom is pain. Other symptoms may include:

  • Swelling in the ankle and foot area
  • Bruising in the area surrounding the affected ankle
  • Tenderness to the touch
  • Weakness and instability of the ankle joint

If the sprain was severe, you may have felt or heard a “pop” when the injury occurred. Sprains can often be difficult to differentiate from a broken bone, which is why it is important to have your injury evaluated promptly.

How do you treat a sprained ankle?

The majority of ankle sprains will heal without any need for surgery. Even complete ligament tears will heal naturally if given the appropriate rehabilitation. Rest, icing, and protection of the ankle are the initial treatment methods for an ankle sprain. Try to follow the RICE protocol as soon as possible after your injury occurs.

Once your swelling has reduced, your orthopedic specialist will slowly introduce rehabilitation exercises focused on restoring strength, flexibility, and range of motion. Many people return to activities as soon as their pain has subsided and do not give their joint ample time to heal. It is crucial to return gradually to regular activities to avoid further injuring the ankle. Not allowing your ligaments to heal completely can make you more susceptible to sprains in the future.

In the rare occasions where ankle sprains do not respond to nonsurgical treatments, your orthopedic doctor may suggest surgery.

The best way to prevent ankle sprains is to maintain strength, balance, and flexibility. Be sure to always warm up thoroughly before physical activity, be highly attentive when walking or running on uneven surfaces, and wear shoes that are proper for your activity.