How to Treat a Sprained Ankle: A Step-By-Step Guide

How to Treat a Sprained Ankle

Think only athletes suffer from sprained ankles? This very common injury can happen to anyone, whether you’re running a marathon or suffer a slip and fall accident at work – that’s why learning how to treat a sprained ankle is important.

Since many people treat minor sprains at home, it’s tough to say how many sprains happen, but they’re the most common musculoskeletal injury primary care providers treat. Every day, more than 23,000 people get medical treatment for sprains. At sports medicine clinics, sprained ankles make up about 30% of injuries treated. A sprained ankle is also a common workplace injury covered by the workers’ compensation insurance.

Even though it’s a very common injury, it isn’t always minor or easy to treat. The injury can be very painful and sometimes lasts several weeks. You may need medical interventions from your doctor if the sprain is severe.

Knowing how to treat a sprained ankle is important in shortening your recovery time and ensuring you get the medical care you need. It can help ease the pain faster and prevent something more severe from happening.

Follow these guidelines for sprained ankle treatment to get back on the mend faster.

What Is a Sprained Ankle?

Sprains usually happen after an injury and affect the ligaments in your ankle. The stretchy ligaments keep your ankle joint together and keep it from twisting and turning too much. They automatically go back into place in their normal shape and size.

If the ligaments get stretched too far, you end up with a sprain. They can’t stretch back to their normal shape and size like they usually do. 

Sometimes sprains involve tears in the ligaments, which can range from microscopic tears to complete tears. These more severe sprains may require additional medical care.

The sprained ankle recovery time varies depending on the severity. A minor grade 1 sprain may heal in 1 to 3 weeks, while a grade 2 sprain may take 3 to 6 weeks. If you completely tear the ligament causing a grade 3 sprain, you can expect the recovery to last several months.

Knowing if you actually sprained your ankle can be challenging. You’ll likely know immediately that you’ve hurt your ankle after a fall, trip, or other incidents. But you may not always be sure if it’s a sprain or something more serious. 

Sometimes those injuries are just minor twists that don’t cause damage to the ligaments. The pain will usually go away in a few hours after a minor injury.

If you sprain your ankle, the pain lasts longer and may be worse when you walk. You may have a decreased range of motion. A sprain usually causes ankle swelling, and you may also have bruising as a result of the injury.

It’s also possible that the injury involves something more serious, such as a broken bone or damage to the tendons.

Seeing a Doctor

If you’re not sure if you have a sprain, it’s a good idea to go to the doctor to get a diagnosis. It can be difficult to tell if it’s a sprain or something more severe, so seeing your doctor can ensure you follow the correct treatment plan.

The doctor may order X-rays or other diagnostic tests to check for other types of ankle injuries. The doctor can also determine how severe a sprain you have, which can affect the treatment plan. A simple grade 1 sprain usually just requires self-care, but a grade 3 sprain may need more medical care.

You should see the doctor if the pain or swelling is severe or you can’t walk more than a few steps. An unusual ankle shape or limited range of motion is also a good reason to get it checked out by an experienced injury doctor.

Reducing Swelling and Pain

Your initial treatment goal is to get the pain and swelling under control. Both symptoms usually happen immediately after the injury and can last several days.

Ankle swelling is one of the first things you’ll deal with after a sprain. It usually starts going down after about 48 hours, but you can do some things to reduce the swelling faster.

The common recommendation for reducing swelling and treating a sprained ankle is the RICE treatment. That stands for rest, ice, compress, and elevate. 

Rest

Resting simply means staying off your hurt ankle. You want to avoid walking on the injured foot as much as possible, especially in the first day or two after the injury. Putting weight on the ankle right after the injury can make it worse and increase the swelling.

Use your own judgment on which activities to avoid if the sprain is minor. Avoid movements that cause the pain or swelling to increase.

If the sprain is severe and you need to move around, you may need to use crutches. This keeps the weight off the ankle joint so the swelling can go down while still keeping you mobile.

For a minor sprain, some movement and gentle exercise after the first day or two can help speed up the healing. That exercise can get blood flowing to the area better, which can support healing. 

Apply Ice

Applying ice right after the injury helps decrease the swelling significantly. After the injury, blood flows to the area and causes swelling. The cold constricts blood flow, which helps cut down on swelling.

Place ice packs over the ankle, keeping them in place for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat this at least four times a day for the first two or three days or while the swelling lasts.

When icing your ankle, protect the skin to keep it from getting too cold. You can place a thin towel or cloth between the ice and your skin for protection.

You can also place your ankle in cold water. This may feel more comfortable to you than icing and keeps it from getting too cold.

Heat can increase swelling, so it’s best to avoid anything that heats up the ankle for at least the first 24 hours. That includes things such as hot showers, hot tubs, or heat rubs.

Compress the Injury

Compressing the injury simply means you should wrap your ankle with a stretchy bandage. This helps hold your ankle joint still so the ligaments can help. Stabilizing your ankle also helps control the pain and reduce the swelling.

You want the bandage to be snug but not so tight that it cuts off the circulation to your ankle. You’re trying to slow the swelling, but you also want the blood flow to the ankle because it helps with the healing process.

If it’s too loose and provides no support, it doesn’t do any good, either, so finding the right balance is important. Test it after you wrap it to see if you can move or roll your ankle. If you can, it’s not tight enough.

To wrap your ankle, follow these steps:

  1. Keep your leg straight with your ankle at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Start with the bandage behind your toes on the ball of your feet. Wrap it around the toes twice.
  3. Move the bandage down your foot, overlapping it each time you pass around your foot.
  4. Go up your leg to about 3 inches above your ankle. Use a figure-eight pattern around your ankle for support. Go over several times to create multiple layers of the bandage.
  5. Secure the bandage with a fastener or piece of tape.

You can also use braces designed for the ankle to help. Braces usually provide more support than wrapping with a bandage. They may be more effective at reducing the swelling.

Elevate Your Ankle

Elevating your ankle can also help get rid of the swelling. Keeping your ankle at a higher position helps get rid of the build-up of fluid in that area.

Lying down with your ankles propped up on pillows is an easy way to get the proper elevation. You can also sit in a reclining chair with your ankle propped on pillows.

Prop your ankle so it’s higher than your heart. Keep it elevated for several hours per day during the first 48 hours after the injury happens. It’s also a good idea to keep your ankle propped while you sleep for those first few days.

Take Pain Reliever

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers won’t help speed up the healing process, but they can help control the pain associated with sprained ankles. The anti-inflammatory factor can also help reduce swelling in the ankle. If you take other medications, check with your doctor first to choose an NSAID that’s safe for you to use.

Instead of taking pain relief pills, you can apply a topical NSAID to the ankle. These pain-relieving gels can give you the same relief without the potential for an upset stomach that sometimes comes with ingesting pain reliever.

Immobilize a Severe Sprain

If you have a more severe sprain that involves tearing, your doctor may do more to immobilize your ankle. That may involve splints, boots, or casts depending on the severity. This isn’t a common sprained ankle treatment, but it may be necessary for a severe tear or an injury that isn’t healing well on its own.

Stretches and Exercises

You want to rest your ankle initially, but you don’t want to keep it immobile forever. Once the pain and swelling are under control, your goal is to get your full range of motion back in the ankle. This happens by using your ankle again.

The sooner you can get your ankle moving again, the faster it’ll heal in most cases. If you’re under a doctor’s care or your ankle, ask about when and how you should start exercising the ankle.

For minor sprains, the exercise is usually something you do on your own at home. Doing the exercises consistently helps you build up strength and heal the injury faster. 

Walking is one of the easiest ways to get exercise for your ankle. Start slowly and walk only short distances to ensure you don’t overdo it.

Flexing the ankle while lying down is another option. Move your toes toward your body then point them away from your body. Repeat this motion several times.

To get your ankle moving, use your toe to write the letters of the alphabet in the air. By doing all of the letters, you get your ankle moving in different directions.

Another simple sitting exercise is to put your injured foot flat on the floor. While holding the foot flat, move your knee from side to side.

Your doctor or physical therapist may use therapy bands to help with strengthening exercises. These bands provide gentle resistance that helps your ankles.

Ongoing balance and stability exercises are also useful after a sprain. These types of exercises can help prevent future sprains by strengthening and stabilizing the ankle.

For more severe sprains, your doctor may recommend rehabilitation with a physical therapist or athletic trainer. You’ll likely go to rehab a few times per week to work on strengthening exercises with the professional. Your therapist or trainer will likely give you additional exercises to do at home to support the therapy for faster healing.

Follow-Up Care

If you have a severe sprain, you’ll likely under be the care of a doctor for several weeks or months. If your sprain is more severe but doesn’t seem to be healing well, you may also need to follow up with your doctor.

If the swelling continues or it gets worse instead of better, call your doctor. Likewise, if the pain doesn’t go away after a few weeks, it’s a good idea to go back for a follow-up appointment. There could be a more severe injury that’s causing continued pain and swelling.

In some severe cases where the ligament is torn, surgery may be required. This is usually only necessary if the severe sprain doesn’t heal on its own.

How to Treat a Sprained Ankle

Figuring out how to treat a sprained ankle often comes down to how severe the injury is. A minor sprain is easy to treat at home, but a more severe sprain may need treatment from a doctor.

If your sprained ankle is due to an accident, call 1-800-897-8440 to book an appointment today to see a doctor. We can help you find an experienced ankle injury doctor in your area.