Ankle sprains

An ankle sprain is a common injury, usually caused by an unexpected twist of your ankle.

When you have a sprained ankle, you have damaged ligaments in your ankle joint. Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that support your ankle by connecting the bones in the joint to each other. The force of twisting your ankle can stretch, partially tear, or rupture one or more of those ligaments.

A sprained ankle can be painful and may make it difficult for you to walk normally, but most common ankle sprains—also sometimes called low ankle sprains—are minor and will heal within a few weeks with rest and simple home treatment.

Some sprains are more serious and should be treated by a doctor. High ankle sprains that affect the ligaments higher up in the ankle often require longer recovery time and may require surgery.

If you think you’ve sprained your ankle, it’s important to get early, appropriate care—even if it’s a minor sprain. A sprained ankle that is not treated properly may stay weak, even after it heals. That can make the ankle more likely to be sprained again.

You don’t need to know how to diagnose your own ankle sprain. If you have any concerns about how badly you’ve injured your ankle, contact your health care provider. Any ankle sprain can benefit from the attention of a medical professional.

Pain and swelling are the most common symptoms of a sprained ankle.

Other common symptoms of a sprained ankle include:

  • Tenderness
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty walking

Ankle sprains are separated into these three categories:

First-degree sprain
The ligaments are stretched or slightly torn. The pain is mild, with tenderness and swelling but no bruising. The ankle still functions, but walking may be difficult. Recovery time is typically four to six weeks.
Second-degree sprain
You feel a tearing, popping, or snapping sensation when you injure the ankle. The ankle swells and feels tender. Bruising begins three to four days after the injury. Walking may be moderately difficult. Recovery time is four to eight weeks.
Third-degree sprain
At the time of the injury, the joint may slip out of place and then back in. The joint has massive swelling, severe tenderness, and instability. Walking may not be possible. Surgery is sometimes necessary. Recovery time is six to 12 weeks.

Playing sports puts you at risk for an ankle sprain, but your everyday activities can also increase your risk.

You can sprain your ankle by rolling it or twisting it while playing sports, but you can also sprain your ankle while doing normal things you do every day. The force caused by slipping on a stairway or stumbling on uneven pavement can twist your ankle enough to sprain it.

You can reduce your risk of a sprained ankle by following a few simple tips:

  • Watch where you’re walking or running.
  • Use a step stool to access high places.
  • Avoid platform shoes and high heels.
  • Exercise your ankles and calves to keep them strong, and stretch your calf muscles after exercising.

Most ankle sprains don’t need surgery.

You can recover from a minor, first-time ankle sprain relatively quickly, especially if you get early, appropriate care after the injury. In most cases, that means using RICE therapy: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Taking anti-inflammatory medications will also decrease swelling and pain.

Rest the ankle until it is pain-free.

Your body needs rest to heal. Intense exercise before a sprain has fully healed may make it worse and increase the chance that you’ll injure it again.

Ice the ankle as soon as possible.

Cover your ankle with a wet towel and place a plastic bag full of ice or a package of frozen corn or peas over it. Apply the ice for 10 to 20 minutes, then remove it for 40 minutes. Repeat this as often as you can during the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury.

Compress the ankle with an elastic bandage.

This will help to control the swelling.

Elevate the ankle.

Recline on a bed, sofa, or chair and use a pillow to raise your injured ankle slightly higher than your hips.

If a low ankle sprain doesn’t heal, even with proper treatment, or if you sprain the same ankle multiple times, your doctor may recommend further treatment, which could include surgery.

Last reviewed: 
March 2019
Alternative Names: 
Torn ankle ligaments

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