By most measures, the ankle sprain is one of the most ubiquitous sports injuries, with an estimated 2 million cases per year in the United States alone. Of course, you don’t have to be an athlete to get one either—an awkward step or bad tumble from a wobbly stiletto, for example, could do the trick just as easily.
Because sprains are so common, many people tend to overlook or underestimate them, skimping on treatment and rushing too quickly back to the field. Don’t let this be you! Ankle sprains are serious injuries that can lead to frequent re-injury or chronic issues if not addressed properly.
Explaining a Sprain
In the simplest terms, a sprain refers to any overstretching or tearing of the ligaments in a joint. Ligaments are bands of tough-yet-flexible fibrous tissue that connects bones to other bones within a joint (as opposed to tendons, which connect bone to muscle).
Ankles are complex joints, containing several ligaments. The injury could conceivably include any combination of them, with multiple locations and levels of severity.
Symptoms and Grades
Ankle sprains are usually classified as one of three grade levels:
- Grade 1, or mild sprains, feature stretching and/or microscopic tearing in the ligament fibers.
- Grade 2, or moderate ones, feature partial tearing of the ligament or ligaments. The joint may feel abnormally loose when manipulated in certain ways by the doctor.
- Grade 3, or severe cases, feature the complete tearing of at least one ligament and often significant looseness and instability in the joint.
In all cases pain, tenderness, and swelling are common (with more severe symptoms associated with more severe grades). You may also hear an audible “pop” at the moment the injury occurs.
Proper treatment for sprains, particularly Grade 2 and above, is critical. Ligaments that don’t heal properly are more likely to injured again, and a history of frequent sprains or improperly healed ligaments can lead to chronic ankle instability (that is, consistently wobbly and weak ankles) or arthritis.
First Aid for an Ankle Sprain
When you suspect a sprain, even a relatively mild one, it’s important to avoid putting any weight on the foot until you can make an appointment with a doctor, as this can magnify the damage. You may also wish to use compression bandages and ice to manage swelling and pain, and elevate the ankle above heart level when you sit or recline. Remember the acronym REST—rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Getting Professional Care
At Associates in Podiatry, we promote conservative care for ankle sprains whenever possible. Even complete ligament ruptures can heal in time, without surgery, if the ankle is properly immobilized.
But first, the examination. Often a physical examination and a discussion of your symptoms is enough to confirm a diagnosis, but with more severe sprains we may perform additional scans or tests to determine the extent of the damage. In some cases, a severe sprain could even be hiding an undiscovered bone fracture.
Grade 2 and 3 sprains often require a period of immobilization, either using a plastic brace or, in more severe circumstances, a short leg cast. This allows the ligaments to heal properly without risk of re-injury.
Once the immobilization period is over, we’ll provide the instructions you need for a physical therapy and rehabilitation program. This will help you regain lost strength and range of motion, improve balance and agility, and get back to where you were (or as close as possible) before the injury in terms of both performance and injury resistance.
Never underestimate an ankle sprain. For help with your recovery, please contact the experts at Associates in Podiatry. You can reach us at (609) 924-8333 in Princeton, NJ or (908) 687-5757 in Roselle Park.