A sprained ankle can happen to everyone, young or old, athletic or not, during a wide variety of regular activities. In fact, more than 25,000 people sprain their ankles every day! But what exactly is a sprained ankle, and how can one be repaired and prevented? Physical Solutions is here to help!
What is a Sprained Ankle?
The joints in your ankle are held together by ligaments, fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones. These ligaments are quite flexible, because they control the normal range of motion that your body is capable of, but a sprain occurs when you twist or bend a body part beyond that normal range of motion, stretching the ligament farther than it’s able. If your particular activity stretches the ligament too far beyond its limitations, it may even tear. Causing any damage to your ligament is what we call a “sprain.”
Sprained ankles can range in their severity, depending on the degree of damage that has been done to the ligament. Depending on the damage, ankle sprains are graded on a scale of 1 to 3; 1 is mild, 2 is moderate, and 3 is severe. In addition to grading their severity, ankle sprains are classified as being either acute, chronic, or recurrent. An acute sprain is one that happened recently, and is actively healing. A chronic sprain is one that still affecting the patient beyond the expected, normal healing time. A recurrent sprain is one that happens often and easily.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Acute ankle sprains usually display the following symptoms:
- Inability to bear weight on the ankle
As soon as you tear a ligament, you usually feel the pain at the site of injury. Oftentimes your ankle will immediately swell upon injury, and can also bruise. Moving or touching the injured ankle will usually hurt. When you suffer a more severe sprain, you may actually hear or feel the tear. Initially you’ll likely experience severe pain, and possibly won’t be able to put any weight on your foot at all. The pain and swelling that you have usually directly correlates to the severity of your sprained ankle, and the time it’ll take to heal.
Physical therapists can perform a full evaluation to determine if you have a sprained ankle. The first step is to perform a manual test to determine the stability or instability of your ankle. Your therapist will decide at this time whether or not you require more extensive tests, such as an x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to determine the extent of the damage if it can’t be assessed on the surface.
Physical Therapy Can Help!
The best thing you can do in the beginning for a sprained ankle is to rest it. Elevating your ankle on a pillow, using an elastic brace, and icing it for 10 minutes at a time are all typical treatments for the first two days. Your physical therapist will determine whether or not you should use crutches or a cane to further protect your ankle while it heals.
Depending on your sprain’s severity, your therapist may suggest you use some swelling and pain-reducing treatments, such as manual therapy, special exercises, ice or heat treatments, or electrical stimulation. Due to the necessity of skill to execute these types of treatments, you will need to go into your therapist’s clinic to get this kind of help.
If you don’t attend to your recovery properly, you may suffer long-term effects as a result of inefficient rehabilitation, such as decreased movement, chronic pain, and joint instability. There are a number of possible rehab treatments that your therapist may choose to remedy your sprain. These include:
Range of motion and muscle-strengthening exercises. Your physical therapist can teach you safe exercises to effectively strengthen your ankle, allowing you to bring your range of motion back to normal. When your muscles are weak due to injury, and then subsequent inactivity, your ankle can’t be as stable as it usually is—your therapist’s experience with these kinds of injuries allows him/her to choose the exercises that are right for your specific injury to get your muscles back to working order.
Body awareness and balance training. Sometimes a sprained ankle can be the result of a stumble over an uneven surface. Your therapist can create a series of special exercises designed to train your muscles to respond to different environments, preparing your body to protect itself against future injury. Once you’re able to walk without feeling pain, your therapist can start utilizing these types of exercises in order to help your body reacclimate to normal activity.
Functional training. Once you’ve worked through the beginning stages of recovery, and you’re able to walk without pain, your therapist can begin integrating activities into your therapy that you regularly did prior to your injury. These types of activities include walking, jogging, and modified running. This type of training allows the therapist to monitor how your body responds to its return to regular activity, and the therapist can examine your ankle’s recovery progress and make adjustments as needed.
Activity-specific training. If you’re an athlete, or you work in a particular industry, your rehabilitation may need to be tailored specifically to the needs of whatever sport or job you do. Different activities put different types and degrees of stress on your ankle, so depending on the activities you’re trying to get back to, your therapy will need to be adjusted accordingly. That’s another reason that working with a physical therapist is key, because their experience with these injuries among years-worth of clients aides in their catering to your specific needs.
Preventing Future Injury
A physical therapist can determine when it’s safe for you to return to your regularly scheduled program. Going back to work or sports prematurely can have severely detrimental consequences, as it’s possible to re-injure yourself and cause permanent damage to your ankle if it hasn’t healed properly or completely already. Working with a physical therapist gives your body the professional rehabilitation and realistic time frame that your body needs to get better. Your therapist will decide when your ankle is strong enough to resume regular activity, which gives you the best chances to avoid future injury. Through your rehabilitation, using body awareness and balance training, and exercises to strengthen your muscles that support your ankle, your new-found consciousness of how your body works, and how it’s supposed to feel, will keep you from doing things that may cause a sprained ankle again.