A sprained ankle is an injury that occurs when you roll, twist or turn your ankle in an awkward way. This can stretch or tear the tough bands of tissue (ligaments) that help hold your ankle bones together.
Ligaments help stabilize joints, preventing excessive movement. A sprained ankle occurs when the ligaments are forced beyond their normal range of motion. Most sprained ankles involve injuries to the ligaments on the outer side of the ankle.
Treatment for a sprained ankle depends on the severity of the injury. Although self-care measures and over-the-counter pain medications may be all you need, a medical evaluation might be necessary to reveal how badly you've sprained your ankle and to determine the appropriate treatment.
Signs and symptoms of a sprained ankle vary depending on the severity of the injury. They may include:
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if you have pain and swelling in your ankle and you suspect a sprain. Self-care measures may be all you need, but talk to your doctor to discuss whether you should have your ankle evaluated. If signs and symptoms are severe, you may have significant damage to a ligament or a broken bone in your ankle or lower leg.
A sprain occurs when your ankle is forced to move out of its normal position, which can cause one or more of the ankle's ligaments to stretch, partially tear or tear completely.
Causes of a sprained ankle might include:
Factors that increase your risk of a sprained ankle include:
Failing to treat a sprained ankle properly, engaging in activities too soon after spraining your ankle or spraining your ankle repeatedly might lead to the following complications:
The following tips can help you prevent a sprained ankle or a recurring sprain:
During a physical, your doctor will examine your ankle, foot and lower leg. The doctor will touch the skin around the injury to check for points of tenderness and move your foot to check the range of motion and to understand what positions cause discomfort or pain.
If the injury is severe, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following imaging scans to rule out a broken bone or to evaluate in more detail the extent of ligament damage:
Treatment for a sprained ankle depends on the severity of your injury. The treatment goals are to reduce pain and swelling, promote healing of the ligament, and restore function of the ankle. For severe injuries, you may be referred to a specialist in musculoskeletal injuries, such as an orthopedic surgeon or a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
For self-care of an ankle sprain, use the R.I.C.E. approach for the first two or three days:
In most cases, over-the-counter pain relievers — such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) — are enough to manage the pain of a sprained ankle.
Because walking with a sprained ankle might be painful, you may need to use crutches until the pain subsides. Depending on the severity of the sprain, your doctor may recommend an elastic bandage, sports tape or an ankle support brace to stabilize the ankle. In the case of a severe sprain, a cast or walking boot may be necessary to immobilize the ankle while it heals.
Once the swelling and pain is lessened enough to resume movement, your doctor will ask you to begin a series of exercises to restore your ankle's range of motion, strength, flexibility and stability. Your doctor or a physical therapist will explain the appropriate method and progression of exercises.
Balance and stability training is especially important to retrain the ankle muscles to work together to support the joint and to help prevent recurrent sprains. These exercises may involve various degrees of balance challenge, such as standing on one leg.
If you sprained your ankle while exercising or participating in a sport, talk to your doctor about when you can resume your activity. Your doctor or physical therapist may want you to perform particular activity and movement tests to determine how well your ankle functions for the sports you play.
In rare cases, surgery is performed when the injury doesn't heal or the ankle remains unstable after a long period of physical therapy and rehabilitative exercise. Surgery may be performed to:
Preparing for your appointment
Schedule an appointment or get emergency medical care for suspected sprains that don't respond to self-care strategies or that cause continued pain or instability. If your sprain is severe, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in sports medicine or orthopedic surgery.
What you can do
You may want to write a list that includes the following:
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask some of the following questions: