Scary Mommy interviewed Dr. Reena Patel to provide in-depth medical insight about how to treat a sprained ankle. Dr. Patel is a board-certified family medicine physician practicing in Orange County, NY.
Sprained ankles can happen to anyone at any age, including kids. This makes sense: Children spend a lot of time playing, while occasionally dabbling in roughhousing and horseplay. And while it’s really great that they’re moving around (and using up their seemingly endless reserves of energy), sometimes these activities may result in them getting hurt — including sustaining an injury involving their ankle. Sure, they’ll tell you it hurts, but how can you tell how serious it is? Is it broken, or just sprained? What about twisted? And how does an ankle twist? Here’s what you need to know about how to treat a sprained ankle, including the RICE method and doctor-approved exercises.
Sprained ankle, twisted ankle, broken ankle: What’s the difference?
First things first: Let’s identify that ankle injury. Dr. Reena Patel, a board-certified family medicine physician practicing in Orange County, New York, breaks it down for us:
- Sprained ankle: A painful injury to the ankle that can include swelling, bruising, or changes in skin color (caused by tiny vessels that break during the injury and leak out under the skin), as well as limited range of motion when it is examined.
- Twisted ankle: Lesser degree than a sprain. An ankle injury that is less severe than a sprain where the symptoms are temporary and the ankle goes back to normal soon after the injury.
- Broken ankle: After the injury, it hurts to bear weight on the ankle. It might also look a little deformed, and the person may experience numbness or intense pain. If you suspect a person’s ankle is broken, make sure they receive medical attention ASAP.
What should you know about how to treat a sprained ankle?
Treating a sprained ankle is a process. As much as we’d love to tell you that there’s a way to heal a sprained ankle in two days, that’s not how it works. (And if an ankle injury does heal that quickly, there’s a good chance it was actually twisted and not sprained.)
Anyway, this process involves the RICE method. Per the Mayo Clinic, “RICE” stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation, and serves as a basic set of instructions for treating a sprained ankle:
- Rest: Don’t completely avoid all physical activity, but stay away from any that cause pain, swelling, or discomfort.
- Ice: Ice that ankle immediately — even if you’re seeking medical help. Use an ice pack or slush bath of ice and water for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, repeating that every two to three hours (during the time when you’re awake) for the first few days after the injury.
- Compression. To help stop swelling, compress the area with an elastic bandage until the swelling stops. “I like to use ankle support braces instead of ACE wraps,” Patel told Scary Mommy. “They are easier to keep on — especially on our kiddos — and afford better compression in some instances.” Just make sure not to wrap the ankle too tightly, which could reduce circulation.
- Elevation. Put your feet up; specifically, so the injured ankle is above the level of your heart. This is especially important at night to give gravity the chance to help reduce swelling.
“RICE is amazing; I recommend it all the time when an X-ray proves that the bone is OK,” Patel explained. “Rest, ice, compression, and elevation go a long way.” And if you’re still dealing with pain and/or swelling, she recommends taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as NSAIDs — that is, in conjunction with RICE treatment.
How do you sleep with a sprained ankle?
Sleeping with a sprained ankle can be difficult. Patel says that it’s primarily important to control the pain with over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen (though ibuprofen is preferable because it aids in reducing inflammation). “In addition, if you can raise [the ankle] to afford that ‘elevation’ part of RICE treatment, it would be great,” she added. “A pillow under [the ankle] or raising the front of your bed would help in alleviating fluid build-up — aka swelling — in your ankle. Ice before bedtime or nap time is also recommended to ease discomfort.”
What are some approved exercises for a sprained ankle?
The best way to prevent future ankle injuries is to increase their strength and stability. This can be done through rehabilitation exercises following a sprained ankle. Here are a few examples:
- Begin by walking or putting a little weight on the ankle, using crutches if needed.
- Start some range of motion exercises within 72 hours of the injury. These should be done before icing the ankle around five times each day. These are all exercises that can be done while watching TV (i.e. the best kind) and include things like tracing the alphabet with your toe or doing toe curls.
- Stretch the Achilles tendon and calf muscles.
- Add in some strengthening exercises for the ankle.
- Once you’re able to stand up without pain, start balance and control exercises.
How long does it take a sprained ankle to heal?
Like most injuries, the healing time for a swollen sprained ankle varies from person-to-person and depends on factors like the type and severity of the injury, Patel explains. “Generally, we are looking at anywhere from one to four weeks,” she elaborated. “Keep in mind [that] a more severe sprain of the ankle can sometimes be worse in healing than a fracture. I’ve seen this happen and can take months and need physical therapy. But this is not as common.”
Because twists are a less severe injury, twisted ankle recovery time is usually somewhere around a week, but again, Patel stresses that this depends on the person and the extent of their injury.
What activities are likely to cause a sprained ankle?
There are a million ways to sprain your ankle, but sometimes you just run into plain ole bad luck. Here are a few common situations that can put you on crutches.
- Wrong footwear. Have you ever seen LeBron James play a game in flip-flops? There’s a reason for that. If you’re running around or doing a lot of strenuous activity, it’s important to wear the right shoes. If you don’t, you could injure your ligaments.
- Playing sports. Being part of a team is a great way to stay active, but playing sports is a risk. Sometimes game-winning jumps can lead to awkward landings that can mess up your ankle. Injuries are common in the world of athletics, so remind your kiddo to play safe and be honest about any physical discomfort or pain they feel.
What supplements help ligaments heal?
Not only does vitamin C help boost your immune system and strengthen your bones, but it can be a big help in ligament repair too. Vitamin C is key to collagen production and usually recommended after an injury. It also promotes healing and tissue repair.
Food filled with protein also helps your body repair tissue and muscle. Having a protein diet helps with inflammation if you get hurt. You can incorporate this supplement into your body by eating meat, fish, tofu, beans, or nuts. Zinc is also loaded with tissue and wound healing enzymes and proteins. You can find this supplement in meat, seafood, and whole grains.
How to Strengthen Ankles for Running After Sprain
If you want to start jogging after a sprain, it’s important to treat your ankles right. There are many ways to strengthen this part of your body and avoid further injury. Here are a few tips for increasing your ankle strength.
- Stretch your ankles daily so they stay flexible and become less prone to sprains.
- Before any activity or exercise, do a few stretches to warm up your body.
- Be vigilant during runs or walks. An uneven sidewalk or branch can do more harm than you think.
- The kinds of shoes you wear during physical activities are also important. Make sure they’re high-tops, your laces are tied, and your shoes fit well.