skip to main content
Main Site Navigation
Top of main content

What Are Ankle Sprains?

Ankle sprains are injuries resulting from stretching, or partly or completely tearing one or more ligaments holding the ankle joint together. Ligaments are bands of strong, flexible fibers connecting bones. Tendons connect muscles and bones. Ankle sprains are common, especially in sports such as basketball and soccer.

What Causes Ankle Sprains?

Sprains occur when the joint is forced to bend more than normal, thus hurting ligaments. The most common type occurs when the foot turns in (called inversion), and full body weight comes down on the ankle. The foot can also turn too far out (called eversion).

What Are the Symptoms of Ankle Sprains?

Popping or tearing is felt at the time of injury. Pain occurs during the injury and after, when walking or moving the ankle. The ankle may swell and feel stiff. The skin around the ankle may be bruised.

With severe injuries, extreme pain makes weight bearing and moving the ankle hard. Tingling or numbness in the foot may mean nerve or blood vessel damage.

How Are Ankle Sprains Diagnosed?

The health care provider will ask about the accident and examine the ankle by moving it to check ligaments and tendons.

For a minor sprain, no more tests are needed. For a severe sprain, the health care provider may order x-rays. Additional tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be done if pain persists and x-rays are inconclusive.

How Are Ankle Sprains Treated?

Ice is applied immediately, because swelling starts quickly. The ankle is rested, which may mean using crutches. Walking is kept to a minimum. A compression wrap or splint is put on the ankle. The ankle is elevated above hip level. Remember these by thinking “RICE” (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). A compression wrap, splint, or brace lets the ankle move without injury. Never use heat before 72 hours after the injury (causes more swelling).

Physical therapy can strengthen muscles, help recovery, and help prevent more injuries.

Over-the-counter antiinflammatory medications (ibuprofen) can be taken to decrease swelling and provide pain relief.

Severe sprains may need surgery and physical therapy.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing an Ankle Sprain:

  • DO warm up and stretch before exercising.
  • DO wear ankle braces when playing sports if you often get sprains.
  • DO lose weight, if overweight.
  • DO keep fit.
  • DO take medicines and use crutches prescribed by your health care provider.
  • DO follow RICE and physical therapy instructions.
  • DO call your health care provider if you can’t walk on your injured ankle, swelling hasn’t left after 2 days or increases, the ankle becomes redder or hot, you have a fever, or you notice popping, catching, or the ankle giving way.
  • DO call your health care provider if your foot is numb, tingling, or is a blue or dusky color or if your toes are cold (signs of cut-off circulation).
  • DO call your health care provider if you don’t see improvement in 7 to 10 days after the sprain.
  • DO call your health care provider if you have pain or swelling in the leg (may mean a blood clot).
  • DON’T do activities that will increase swelling. Avoid early use of heat or too much activity, standing, or sitting with the ankle hanging.
  • DON’T play sports again until pain and swelling are gone and the ankle is strong.

Contact the following sources:

  • The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
    Tel: (847) 292-4900
    Fax: (847) 292-4905
  • American College of Sports Medicine
    Tel: (317) 637-9200

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor

Not sure which type of care is right for you?

We can help.