Every day in the U.S., around 25,000 people sprain their ankle. And while it’s often considered a sports-related injury, you don’t have to be an elite athlete or weekend warrior to be at risk for a twist. A simple misstep on an uneven surface can be enough to stretch or tear ligaments that hold the ankle bones together—and take you out of action.
Treatment for a sprained ankle depends on the severity of the injury. Regardless, there are certain things that you should always do, and a few you shouldn’t, to avoid further damage, speed healing, and get you back on your feet.
From hikes near Puget Sound to weekend soccer games in Spokane, sprained ankles can happen anywhere, luckily our providers are here to help. If you believe you sprained your ankle, here are a few things we recommend.
1. Get first aid
Quick action following an ankle sprain will help avoid further damage and ease discomfort.
- Apply a temporary bandage or brace to help to support the joint and restrict movement.
- Sit or lie down in a way that prevents putting weight on the ankle. Failure to do so might increase the risk of broken bones and excessive swelling.
- Use anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin) or naproxen (Aleve) to reduce pain and alleviate swelling.
2. Use RICE
Following a sprained ankle, doctors recommend a simple self-care combo of rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE).
- Rest: Now is the time to take it easy. If you attempt to return to too much activity before total healing takes place, you increase the risk of more injury.
- Ice: Wrap ice in a towel and apply it to the sprained ankle for about 10 to 20 minutes every two to three hours during the first 24 to 48 hours after your injury. A bag of frozen peas or corn also works great.
- Compression: To stabilize the ankle, wrap the affected areas with an elastic medical bandage. You’ll want it tight—but not too tight. If the bandage digs into the skin, it could interrupt blood flow.
- Elevation: When you get a sprained ankle, fluid rushes to and accumulates in the joint, causing swelling, pain and throbbing. To avoid this, use pillows to elevate the foot and ankle above the heart. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you keep the injured area raised whenever possible, even when you’re not icing it.
3. Apply warm compression
Warm compresses applied to the ankle after the swelling subsides can increase blood flow to the injured area and speed healing. The warm compression can also relax muscles and ease pain. Apply heat packs to the ankle for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. You can also alternate between hot and cold packs.
Caution: Using heat while the ankle is still inflamed can slow healing and increase pain.
Over time, muscles can atrophy due to disuse. It’s important to stretch the muscles to keep them strong and limber and help move blood to the injured area to accelerate healing.
To stretch, move your ankle in all directions two to three times a day. You can also try to flex the foot forward and roll it clockwise, then counterclockwise. Avoid overextending the ankle. If you feel pain when you stretch in a certain direction, ease up.
While it's not advised to walk immediately after you sprain your ankle, after the swelling subsides, walking can help strengthen your ankle and promote healing. Start with short distances. Walking from one room to the next is a good way to start. As the ankle gets stronger, increase your distance.
Exercise is not only important for restoring strength and balance, it also helps to prevent muscles from atrophying. If your muscles get weaken or shrink, you face an increased risk of another sprain.
Make sure you wait until the swelling subsides and you can walk comfortably and consult a physiotherapist first to find out which exercises are safe at each stage of your healing process. If you experience serious pain while exercising, visit your nearby Indigo Urgent Care to get the ankle checked out.
7. Massage the ankle
Massage is a great way to alleviate pain and increase blood flow to the injured area. For less serious injuries, do your own massage at home. If the ankle is too painful, consult a qualified massage therapist.
Research shows that massaging the underside of the foot and heel and just above the ankle can also provide relief. If you notice increased pain, stop massaging the ankle and contact or visit Indigo.
8. Get physical therapy
Physical therapy is especially beneficial for people who experience long-term pain after a serious sprain. It is also recommended for individuals who have had previous ankle injuries. The therapist will examine the sprained ankle to identify weak muscles and other issues. Treatment will focus on reviving the tissues to alleviate pain and decrease the risk of injury. The physical therapist will develop an exercise plan tailored to your specific needs and recommend any necessary lifestyle changes.
Common mistakes during a sprained ankle injury
- Do not walk or run it off. To heal properly, your ankle needs time to rest. Walking too early can cause further damage to the joint and surrounding tissues.
- It's important not to ignore your injury regardless of the severity. An untreated sprained ankle can quickly become unstable and may lead to chronic pain and inflammation. Over time, the condition can develop into arthritis.
- Do not delay medical attention When a sprained ankle goes untreated, you could be in for extended healing time, or the ankle sprain could heal incorrectly. Damaged ligaments can stretch and become lax, making the ankle unstable. It’s also important to have your injured ankle checked as soon as possible for tendon tears and cartilage injuries.
How will I know if my sprained ankle is serious?
Generally, severe bruising and swelling as well as the inability to bear weight will be a good indicator. In some cases, when a sprained ankle is serious, it may require a walking boot or an ankle brace to stabilize the area during healing. After some time, if the ankle continues to feel weak or unstable, physical therapy can be helpful. If unsure about the severity, an x-ray can help determine what type of treatment is needed.
How to know if you tore a ligament in your ankle?
Your ankle is surrounded by a series of ligaments. Unlike tendons, ligaments are not very stretchy, so they are more likely to tear during an injury. When this happens, a ligament tear can impact the movement of your ankle joint.
If you're concerned about a torn ligament, check the following symptoms.
- Swelling around your ankle joint
- Tenderness to touch
- Feeling wobbly or unstable while putting weight on your ankle
- Instability will also be accompanied by pain in your ankle
- Popping sound at the time of injury
When should I seek medical attention for a sprained ankle?
Ankle sprains are common and most heal quickly with proper treatment. But they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Be sure you get your injury checked out, especially if you have pain or other concerns.
The trusted, friendly medical professionals at Indigo Urgent Care are available every day from 8 am to 8 pm to evaluate your sprained ankle and offer treatment options that will help get you (safely) back in action.
We have on-site digital X-ray services to rule out a minor fracture, and we’ll even send you home with a pair of crutches if you need them.