When was the last time you turned your ankle? Whether caused by tripping over a crack in the sidewalk while running or stumbling down a slippery stoop in the rain, ankle injuries are some of the most common injuries around. Sports injuries are a frequent cause of ankle pain both in adults and kids.
Many ankle injuries are not serious and easily treated. But others may require an orthopedic boot or cast, physical therapy or surgery.
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Sprain, Strain or Fracture?
Not all ankle injuries are the same, because the ankle joint itself has a complex structure of interacting bones, muscles and tissues.
- An ankle sprain causes sudden ankle pain and affects the tissue that connects bones at joints, or ligaments. Often caused by an injury like a fall, symptoms include bruising and swelling.
- An ankle strain affects a muscle or tendon, the tissue that connects muscle to the bone. Muscle strains are less common in ankles than in other parts of the body, although Achilles tendons can rupture from injury.
- An ankle fracture is a chipped, cracked or fully broken bone. Swelling, pain and being unable to put weight on it are the most common symptoms.
Treatment for Mild Ankle Injuries
How do you know if ankle injury is serious? If you’re experiencing only mild pain from your ankle injury and it can still bear weight, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen, can help reduce both pain and swelling.
Follow up with the RICE protocol:
- Rest. Do not use the affected body part as much as possible.
- Ice. Place an ice pack wrapped in a towel on the site of pain for 20 minutes, four to eight times a day, with at least 40 minutes in between sessions.
- Compress. Wrap the joint with an elastic bandage, being careful not to wrap too tightly.
- Elevate. Prop your leg or arm up so that it is above or level with your heart to further reduce swelling.
When Is It Time to Call the Doctor
If you can’t put weight on your ankle at all or you are in extreme pain, you should go to urgent or emergency care immediately, as you may have a fracture. If your ankle can bear weight but the RICE protocol doesn’t seem to be making a difference after a couple of days, schedule an appointment with an orthopedic provider. Only a medical provider can X-ray your injured ankle or leg and determine your best course of treatment. You may also need an MRI or ultrasound to diagnose your soft tissue injury.
Recovering From an Ankle Injury
The time it takes for the sprain, strain or fracture to heal depends on many factors, including the severity of the injury. Your ankle may not be able to bear weight for several weeks, requiring the use of crutches or a wheelchair to get around. You could be in a walking boot for months. Certain types of injuries will require physical therapy to regain your full range of motion and strength in your ankle.