What it is
A sprained ankle is a very common injury. Approximately 25,000 people experience it each day. A sprained ankle can happen to athletes and non-athletes, children and adults. It can happen when you take part in sports and physical fitness activities. It can also happen when you simply step on an uneven surface, or step down at an angle.
The ligaments of the ankle hold the ankle bones and joint in position. They protect the ankle joint from abnormal movements — especially twisting, turning, and rolling of the foot.
A ligament is an elastic structure. Ligaments usually stretch within their limits, and then go back to their normal positions. When a ligament is forced to stretch beyond its normal range, a sprain occurs. A severe sprain causes actual tearing of the elastic fibers.
The amount of force determines the grade of the sprain. A mild sprain is a Grade 1. A moderate sprain is a Grade 2. A severe strain is a Grade 3.
Grade 1 sprain: Slight stretching and some damage to the fibers (fibrils) of the ligament.
Grade 2 sprain: Partial tearing of the ligament. If the ankle joint is examined and moved in certain ways, abnormal looseness (laxity) of the ankle joint occurs.
Grade 3 sprain: Complete tear of the ligament. If the examiner pulls or pushes on the ankle joint in certain movements, gross instability occurs.
The cause of an ankle sprain is a situation where the foot twists, rolls, or turns beyond its normal motions. A great force is transmitted upon landing. You can sprain your ankle if the foot is planted unevenly on a surface, beyond the normal force of stepping. This causes the ligaments to stretch beyond their normal range in an abnormal position.
Symptoms of an Ankle Sprain
The amount of pain depends on the amount of stretching and tearing of the ligament. Another symptom of an ankle sprain is instability, when there has been complete tearing of the ligament or a complete dislocation of the ankle joint.
Walking may be difficult because of the swelling and pain. You may need to use crutches if walking causes pain. Usually swelling and pain will last two days to three days. Depending upon the grade of injury, the doctor may tell you to use removable plastic devices such as castboots or air splints.
Most ankle sprains need only a period of protection to heal. The healing process takes about four weeks to six weeks. The doctor may tell you to incorporate motion early in the healing process to prevent stiffness. Motion may also aid in being able to sense position, location, orientation, and movement of the ankle (proprioception). Even a complete ligament tear can heal without surgical repair if it is immobilized appropriately. Even if an ankle has a chronic tear, it can still be highly functional because overlying tendons help with stability and motion.
For a Grade 1 sprain, use RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation).
For a Grade 2 sprain, the RICE guidelines can also be used. Allow more time for healing to occur. The doctor may also use a device to immobilize or splint the ankle. v A Grade 3 sprain can be associated with permanent instability. Surgery is rarely needed. A short leg cast or a cast-brace may be used for two to three weeks.
Rehabilitation is used to help to decrease pain and swelling and to prevent chronic ankle problems.
All ankle sprains recover through three phases:
Phase 1 includes resting, protecting the ankle, and reducing the swelling (one week).
Phase 2 includes restoring range of motion, strength, and flexibility (one week to two weeks).
Phase 3 includes gradually returning to activities that do not require turning or twisting the ankle, and doing maintenance exercises. This will be followed later by being able to do activities that require sharp, sudden turns (cutting activities) such as tennis, basketball, or football (weeks to months).
Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be used to control pain and inflammation.
Long-term outcome: If an ankle sprain is not recognized, and is not treated with the necessary attention and care, chronic problems of pain and instability may result.
Surgical treatment for ankle sprains is rare. Surgery is reserved for injuries that fail to respond to nonsurgical treatment, and for persistent instability after months of rehabilitation and non-surgical treatment.
Surgical options include:
Arthroscopy: A surgeon looks inside the joint to see if there are any loose fragments of bone or cartilage, or if part of the ligament is caught in the joint.
Reconstruction: A surgeon repairs the torn ligament with stitches or suture, or uses other ligaments and/or tendons found in the foot and around the ankle to repair the damaged ligaments.