How to Reduce Recovery Time for a Sprained Ankle

Tips for Treating a Sprained Ankle

ankle sprain

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An ankle sprain is a sports injury often seen in athletes who participate in stop-and-start running sports, field sports, and outdoor adventure sports. This painful condition is one of the most common reasons for a visit to an emergency room.

Athletes often try to push through the pain of a sprain or get back into sports quickly after the injury occurs. This can delay recovery and increase the risk of re-injury. 

Learning how to identify and treat an ankle sprain, knowing when to rest, and undergoing proper rehabilitation procedures can help you recover more quickly and prevent future problems.

How to Identify an Ankle Sprain

Ankle sprains often occur when the foot is planted and your body makes a rapid twisting or shifting movement such as when the ankle rolls out and the foot rolls in.

When this quick rolling and twisting motion happens, the ligaments on the inside or outside of the ankle are stretched and sometimes even torn.

You are likely to feel pain right away when a sprain occurs. Some people hear a pop or feel a tearing sensation. In some instances, the area may immediately begin to swell or bruise. It is likely that the area will be tender to the touch.

In severe cases, you may have trouble walking on the injured ankle.

What to Do Immediately After a Sprain

If you have an ankle sprain it is important to act quickly. The recommended treatment is to follow the P.O.L.I.C.E treatment protocol (protect, optimal loading, then ice, rest, and elevation):

  1. Start by protecting the joint. This could mean rest and/or using an assistive device such as crutches.
  2. Apply a compression wrap and ice to keep swelling to a minimum. Ice should be used for about 15 minutes at a time and then removed. Leaving the ice on any longer can risk frost-burn and cause tissue damage.
  3. Rest your foot and keep the leg elevated to decrease the blood flow (and swelling) in the ankle.

It may be helpful to use a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication to help control inflammation. Some studies have found that patients using NSAIDs after ankle sprains had less pain, decreased swelling, and a more rapid return to activity than those who didn't take any medication. For this reason, the use of NSAIDs is often recommended for the first three to seven days.

Despite the findings, not all experts agree that NSAIDs are always beneficial. In 2018, researchers published a consensus statement concerning the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of ankle sprains in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. In their guideline update, they advised that medication should be used with caution.

They recommended that NSAIDs may be used by patients who have incurred an acute lateral ankle sprain for the primary purpose of reducing pain and swelling. However, care should be taken in NSAID usage as it is associated with complications and may suppress or delay the natural healing process.

For a severe sprain (or one you cannot put weight on), you may need a visit to a physician to make sure you don't have a fracture or another serious ankle injury. Your healthcare provider will also be able to provide more specific guidance about medication.

In general, you should avoid putting weight on the joint as long as you have acute or severe swelling. When possible, you should keep your foot elevated. Within a couple of days, the pain should decrease enough to allow moderate weight-bearing without pain. As you are able to tolerate more weight, you can begin a walking and gentle stretching program to increase your flexibility.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Call your doctor if you suspect an ankle sprain. Self-care like the P.O.L.I.C.E protocol may be all you need for recovery, but your doctor may recommend that you come in for an assessment.

If you see a healthcare provider for your sprain, you can expect them to order an imagining test such as an X-ray to rule out a broken bone or another injury. Based on the results of the imaging test, a physical examination, and a discussion about your symptoms, your doctor will diagnose your injury.

Your ankle sprain diagnosis will include a grade. There are three grades based on severity. Treatment and the amount of the recovery time you can expect generally increases with the severity of the sprain. If you injured your ankle playing a sport or during a typical workout, talk to your doctor about when you can expect to get back to your regular activity.

The sooner you begin treatment for the sprain, the better. Don't ignore or push through the pain, or expect that a bag of ice on your ankle that evening will do the trick. You could end up with a sprain that takes weeks or months to heal properly.

Rehab Exercises for Sprain Recovery

If you see a healthcare provider for your injury, expect to receive an exercise program to begin when the acute symptoms like swelling and pain of your sprain subside. The therapy program will include range of motion exercises and a gradual progression to full weight-bearing. The goal of therapy is to restore strength, flexibility, and stability to the injured ankle.

Proprioception exercises and other balance exercises can also help you recover more quickly and should be performed as part of a prevention program. Balance exercises aim to train muscles to support the ankle joint.

Prevention

To avoid ankle sprains, you must strengthen your ankle joint and develop a highly refined balance system. In fact, poor balance is a good predictor of future ankle sprain risk. It's also important to work on your reaction time and muscle coordination.

If you play sports where an ankle sprain is likely (such as soccer, track, football, or basketball) you should always have a first aid kit nearby. Such a kit should include compression wraps, ice packs, splints, bandages, NSAIDs, and other basic first aid supplies.

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Article Sources

  1. Polzer H, Kanz KG, Prall WC, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of acute ankle injuries: development of an evidence-based algorithmOrthop Rev (Pavia). 2012;4(1):e5. doi:10.4081/or.2012.e5

  2. Vuurberg G, Hoorntje A, Wink LM, et al Diagnosis, treatment and prevention of ankle sprains: update of an evidence-based clinical guideline. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2018;52:956.

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