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How to Quickly Recover From a Sprained Ankle

by Dan Hinckley » on May 08, 2020 0

Sprained ankles are painful, but they’re not at all uncommon. In fact, over 3 million Americans each year experience this condition.

An ankle sprain occurs when a person’s foot rolls inward or outward at an unnatural angle. The ankle joint has several tough bands of tissue called ligaments which connect bones and cartilages to one another. The ankle has ligaments on both the inside and outside of the joint, and forcing the ankle into an unnatural position can injure these ligaments by stretching or tearing them. Most sprains involve the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. Depending on the severity of the sprain, there can also be damage to other tissues such as cartilage or blood vessels.

The high incidence of ankle sprains, or “rolling” the ankle, can be blamed on how easy it is to sustain this type of injury. While many people sprain their ankles while working out or playing sports, it’s also quite common to roll an ankle when engaging in completely mundane activities. Simply wearing the wrong type of footwear or taking an awkward step off a curb can cause your foot to be awkwardly placed, leading to a nasty sprain.

Sprained Ankle Recovery

The most common symptoms of a sprain include swelling, bruising, and an inability to put weight on the affected ankle. In severe cases where a ligament is completely torn through, the pain and swelling may make moving the ankle difficult or impossible.

To determine how severely an ankle has been injured and what type of treatment will provide the greatest relief, a doctor should examine the injury right away. A serious sprain, if left untreated, can develop into chronic pain and long-term instability in the joint. More serious injuries may prompt a doctor to order an MRI or an X-ray. This is to rule out any bone fractures, or to more accurately determine the degree to which the ligaments have been damaged. However, most ankle sprains don’t require any drastic measures and can be treated at home.

To reduce swelling, ice should be applied as soon as possible after the injury, and 3-4 times per day after that. Icing will help to reduce bleeding into the area and can provide a modicum of pain relief. Ice should never be placed directly on an injury, so it’s best to put some kind of material between the ice and the skin. You can make an ice pack by putting ice cubes into a plastic bag or using a bag of frozen food such as frozen peas. Be sure to adjust the pack every few minutes to avoid ice burns, and do not ice longer than 30 minutes. If the skin turns bright pink or red, stop icing the area right away.

Swelling can also be reduced by elevating the ankle. An ottoman or a few pillows stacked at the end of the couch should be sufficient to provide some drainage.

Wrapping the ankle to immobilize the joint is often recommended. This allows the ligaments to heal without being disturbed. Although the ankle will need to be wrapped firmly enough to limit the range of motion, it’s important not to wrap so tightly that blood flow is restricted.

Sprained Ankle Recovery

Finally, it’s important to keep weight off of the ankle. Using crutches or limiting your mobility will give the ankle a better chance to heal. A week to 10 days is usually sufficient for mild to moderate sprains, although more severe injuries may require the patient to stay off the ankle for several weeks.

While more obvious injury symptoms such as pain and swelling may disappear or be greatly reduced in just a few days, there are invisible injuries that remain until the tissues are completely healed. The presence of damaged ligaments mean that a sprained ankle will be less stable than a healthy ankle for a period of time, so putting weight on the ankle should be done quite gingerly at first. If there is significant pain or discomfort, stop! Your ligaments haven’t done enough healing yet.

As ligament healing progresses, it’s important to restore a full range of motion to the injured joint. As long as they can be performed without significant pain, simple exercises can help with the healing process. You should always ask your doctor before beginning these kinds of exercises. Here are a few examples of exercises that might be recommended, once a doctor has given the green light:

  • Prop your leg up across a chair or off the end of the bed, so that your ankle and foot hang free. Use the toe of your foot to trace the alphabet. This will encourage the ankle to move in all directions. Complete the alphabet up to 3 times.
  • While seated, place your foot flat on the floor. Slowly move your knee from side to side while keeping your injured foot planted. Continue this exercise for 2 minutes.
  • Perform “towel curls”. While seated, place your injured foot flat on top of a towel on the floor. Curl your toes to grab the towel and pull it toward you. Once you have reached the end of the towel, reverse the motion. Curl your toes inward, then use it to push the towel away from you. Try this 4-5 times per day.

In the most rare and dramatic cases, a sprained ankle can require surgery to repair. This is employed for injuries that fail to improve with nonsurgical treatments or which involve severe ligament damage. It can also be an option when a person has had several bad sprains. Repeated injuries can cause ligaments to become loose and weak, leading to an instability in the joint. (Maddeningly, an unstable ankle is a risk factor for sustaining a new sprain!) This condition is often repaired through a surgery called “lateral ankle ligament reconstruction”, in which the ligaments are physically tightened up.

Lateral ankle ligament reconstruction is often performed under general anesthesia. A surgeon makes an incision through the skin and muscle to access the malformed ligaments. The ligaments are detached from the bone, shortened, and reattached. The ankle is set in a splint before the patient wakes up. This is usually an outpatient surgery, so patients are able to return home the same day, although they will need someone to drive them.

It’s normal to experience pain for a few days after the surgery, so a doctor will make recommendations about any pain medications that can be used for relief. Elevating the ankle for a few days can help reduce swelling. After a period of 10-14 days, the stitches or staples used to close the wound after surgery can be removed. However, it’s still best to keep weight off the ankle for several weeks to months, so a doctor will usually equip their patient with a cast, boot, or crutches.

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