Explore Ankle Sprains
Ankle sprains are common injuries that occur among people of all ages. They range from mild to severe, depending upon how much damage there is to the ligaments.
Most sprains are minor injuries that heal with home treatments like rest and applying ice. However, if your ankle is very swollen and painful to walk on it may be more serious.
Without proper treatment and rehabilitation, a more severe sprain can weaken your ankle—making it more likely that you will injure it again. Repeated ankle sprains can lead to long-term problems, including chronic ankle pain, arthritis, and ongoing instability.
Ligaments are strong, fibrous tissues that connect bones to other bones. The ligaments in the ankle help to keep the bones in proper position and stabilize the joint.
Most sprained ankles occur in the lateral ligaments on the outside of the ankle. Sprains can range from tiny tears in the fibers that make up the ligament to complete tears through the tissue.
If there is a complete tear of the ligaments, the ankle may become unstable after the initial injury phase passes.
Your foot can twist unexpectedly during many different activities, such as:
- Walking or exercising on an uneven surface
- Falling down
- Participating in sports that require cutting actions or rolling and twisting of the foot—such as trail running, basketball, tennis, football, and soccer
- During sports activities, someone else may step on your foot while you are running, causing your foot to twist or roll to the side.
A sprained ankle is painful. Other symptoms may include:
- Tenderness to touch
- Instability of the ankle—this may occur when there has been complete tearing of the ligament or a complete dislocation of the ankle joint.
Bruising and swelling are common signs of a sprained ankle. If there is severe tearing of the ligaments, you might also hear or feel a "pop" when the sprain occurs. Symptoms of a severe sprain can be similar to those of a broken bone. In addition to a physical exam in the office, x-rays are helpful to rule out a broken bone, or an avulsion fracture that can commonly be seen with ligament tears. Stress x-rays show whether the ankle is moving abnormally because of injured ligaments.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can be helpful to assess damage to the ligaments, damage to the cartilage or bone of the joint surface, a small bone chip, or another problem.
Grades of Ankle Sprains
Sprains are graded based on how much damage has occurred to the ligaments.
Grade 1 Sprain (Mild)
- Slight stretching and microscopic tearing of the ligament fibers
- Mild tenderness and swelling around the ankle
Grade 2 Sprain (Moderate)
- Partial tearing of the ligament
- Moderate tenderness and swelling around the ankle
- If the doctor moves the ankle in certain ways, there is an abnormal looseness of the ankle joint
Grade 3 Sprain (Severe)
- Complete tear of the ligament
- Significant tenderness and swelling around the ankle
- If the doctor pulls or pushes on the ankle joint in certain movements, substantial instability occurs
Almost all ankle sprains can be treated without surgery. Even a complete ligament tear can heal without surgical repair if it is immobilized appropriately.
A three-phase program guides treatment for all ankle sprains—from mild to severe:
- Phase 1 includes resting, protecting the ankle and reducing the swelling.
- Phase 2 includes restoring range of motion, strength and flexibility.
- Phase 3 includes maintenance exercises and the gradual return to activities that do not require turning or twisting the ankle. This will be followed later by being able to do activities that require sharp, sudden turns (cutting activities)—such as tennis, basketball, or football.
This three-phase treatment program may take just 2 weeks to complete for minor sprains, or up to 6 to 12 weeks for more severe injuries.
Surgery is reserved for injuries that fail to respond to nonsurgical treatment, and for patients who experience persistent ankle instability after months of rehabilitation and nonsurgical treatment.
Surgical options may include:
- During arthroscopy, a small camera, called an arthroscope,is used to look inside your ankle joint. Instruments are used to remove any loose fragments of bone or cartilage, or parts of the ligament that may be caught in the joint.
- Ligament repair involves reconstruction of the ligaments with sutures, which connect tissue to bone to reconstitute the ligaments.
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