Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that connect bones to each other. They provide strength and support to joints. In the ankle, injuries to the ligaments, called sprains, are usually caused by unexpected twists of the joint. A sprain can be a stretch, tear or complete rupture of one or more of the ligaments that hold the bones of the ankle joint together. Sprains are classified according to the severity of the ligament tear.
Degrees of Sprains
There are three degrees of sprains:
- First degree sprain
- Stretching and minimal tearing cause mild pain, difficulty walking, tenderness, and swelling. There is no bruising or loss of function. Recovery time is four to six weeks.
- Second degree sprain
- A tearing sensation, or a pop or snap is felt. There is swelling and tenderness in the ankle. Bruising begins three to four days after the injury. Walking may be moderately difficult. Recovery time is four to eight weeks.
- Third degree sprain
- At the time of the injury, the joint may slip out of place and then back in. There is massive swelling, severe tenderness and instability in the joint. Walking may not be possible. Surgery is sometimes necessary. Recovery time is six to 12 weeks.
Caring for Ankle Sprains
Severe ankle sprains need medical care. It's a good idea to be evaluated for a possible fracture. Then use RICE therapy: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Ice the injury as soon as possible. Cover your ankle with a WET towel and place a plastic bag full of ice over it. A one or two pound package of frozen corn or peas makes an excellent ice pack. They mold to the ankle and can be refrozen for repeated use. Ice should be applied for 10 to 30 minutes on and off for 48 to 72 hours. Stay off your feet. Recline and elevate the hurt ankle slightly higher than your hips. Compress the injury with an elastic bandage. For the first few days crutches are advised, even with mild sprains.
Exercising before a sprain has healed may make it worse and increase the chance of re-injury. Your body needs rest to make repairs. Rest the sprain until it is pain-free. Take aspirin or ibuprofen around the clock to decrease swelling and pain. These medications should not be taken without approval from your healthcare provider if you have an ulcer, kidney problems, an allergy to aspirin, or are on a blood-thinning medication.
Avoiding Ankle Sprains
You can reduce your chance of ankle sprains by following a few simple tips:
- Watch where you are walking or running.
- Use a step stool to access high places.
- Avoid platform soles and high heels.
- Exercise regularly.
- Do exercises that will improve your ankle strength, and stretch your calf muscles before and after exercise.