Is a sprained ankle serious enough that I need to make a doctor’s appointment or will it heal on its own?
There are a lot of reasons for ankle pain. Not only is the ankle a common target for injury, but there is also a long list of conditions and causes that lead to pain in this important weight-bearing joint. Some of the more common ones include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fractures, fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, bursitis, gout, lupus, and tendinitis in the Achilles tendon.
The most common reason for ankle pain, however, is a sprain. When we say that an ankle has been sprained, we mean that the ligaments, which are bands of connective tissue that hold the bones in the ankle joint together, have been overstretched. In more severe cases, the ligaments are actually torn.
Ankle sprains are very common and they happen to people of all ages and activity levels. They may be more likely among athletes who place extreme demands on their ankles with constant twisting and turning but they also happen to those simply stepping off of a curb or walking on an uneven surface.
Sprain or Strain?
Have you ever been uncertain about whether an injury is a sprain or a strain? We generally know that it’s correct to say sprained ankle and strained back, but do you know why?
The symptoms of pain and inflammation are similar for each, but sprains and strains are actually different because of the body part affected. A sprain occurs when there is over-stretching or tearing of a ligament, while the same injury to a tendon or muscle is called a strain.
Ankle Sprain Symptoms
Ankle pain from some sort of arthritis or other condition is likely to develop gradually, but a sprained ankle typically hurts immediately. The pain can be significant and other symptoms that commonly accompany it include:
- Inflammation and swelling
- Instability in the ankle, which may indicate a more serious sprain
- Ankle may become discolored from bruising
- Tenderness when touched
Treatment Options for a Sprained Ankle
Ankle sprains may be common but that doesn’t mean that they should not be taken seriously. This is especially true if an ankle suffers severe or repeated sprains leading to damage that does not completely heal.
Treatment options will be determined by how severe the injury is, with the goal being reduction of pain and swelling and the restoration of mobility. The timeline will be geared to accomplish this as quickly as possible while, at the same time, allow the ligament sufficient time to heal completely.
For minor sprains, conservative methods will first be suggested. These include some combination of:
- Over-the-counter pain medications for pain and swelling
- Walking aids, such as crutches
If further treatment is required, your orthopedist may add an exercise program and physical therapy.
In those cases in which the ligament has been too damaged to heal on its own, surgery will be the next option. Ankle ligament reconstruction is commonly used to tighten loose ligaments and repair those which have been torn. Patients can expect to be in a cast and on crutches for a couple of weeks, and full recovery should take place in three to six months.
If you have questions about sprained ankle or about any other foot or ankle concerns, Dr. Christopher Hubbard is a board-certified Orthopedic Surgeon with Ortho-Care Wayne in Bergen County New Jersey and is the former Chief of the Foot and Ankle Service at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in NYC.
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