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How to treat a sprained ankle

sprained ankle Ouch! A sudden jolt of pain just shot through your lower leg and now it feels like your ankle is being squeezed in a vise-grip. You might have been running down the court, taking a hike on rough terrain, stepped in a divot in your yard or maybe you tripped while walking. No matter how you did it, all ankle sprains will have some (if not all) of the following symptoms:

  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Difficulty moving the ankle
  • Difficulty walking
  • Bruising
  • Warm to the touch
  • Increased pain to the touch

The good news is, while there are hundreds of ways to sprain your ankle, there are a few proven methods to treat the injury and get you back on your feet.

1) Take time to treat it right away
There is a familiar story that is often heard when treating someone with an ankle sprain. It goes like this, “I felt it twist, but kept playing/hiking/working and then after I got home, it swelled and got really painful.”

Ankle sprains will not get better on their own. If you don’t have access to a qualified health care provider right away, then you need to be your own doctor and stop your activity. Next, follow the treatment tips below.

2) Get an X-ray
The simplest test you can do for a sprained ankle is to get an X-ray. Whether you just sprained your ankle, or it’s several weeks old but still swollen and sore, a set of X-rays can give you a lot of information.

Treating an ankle sprain can take time and can be frustrating. An X-ray will help you make the correct choice in your treatment plan. Even small chips or tiny cracks can cause lingering effects. Stop guessing that it is just a sprain and find out for sure.

3) Follow the PRICE of an ankle sprain
These treatment tips are for treating all ankle sprains and should start the night of the injury. However, it’s never too late to treat a sprain.

P – Protection: This is important for those new sprains, especially when you don’t know if it is broken or not. Use crutches and a splint, preferably an Aircast to prevent the ankle from moving. You can use a few long pieces of cardboard and a compression wrap around the ankle until an X-ray and brace is available.

R – Rest: This is a severely underrated, but important step. If possible, stay completely off the ankle for the next 24-48 hours after the injury. Staying off your leg and limiting how much you move the ankle will help improve healing. When you return to work or school, be sure to use a soft ankle brace for support.

I – Ice: The best way to get pain relief is from icing the injured area. While icing is not always fun, the benefits far outweigh the negatives, so ice is always recommended.

To ice your ankle, use a small towel or washcloth and get it wet (you can even use warm water). Wrap the towel around your ankle, and then place a gel ice pack or a bag of ice cubes on the injured area for 20 minutes. To help in cooling, use a compression wrap or plastic food wrap to wrap the ice pack onto the area. This helps cool the area much better than simply laying the bag on the injury.

C – Compression: Compressing ice onto the ankle while icing is good, but the ankle will benefit even more if you continue to wrap it in between icing. Use a 3 or 4 inch compression wrap to squeeze the swelling out of your ankle. The wrap should start on the foot (just above the toes) and circle up to the lower leg (about the sock line). Be sure not to leave any openings and pull the wrap snug enough that it won’t slip, but not enough to cut off circulation. Wear this all day and night, unless you are showering or icing. Stop when the swelling is gone.

compression wrap

E – Elevation: Raising your leg to a higher elevation will lessen how swollen your ankle becomes. Swelling is the result of fluids that build up under your skin. It is a normal part of the healing process, but it can really slow down how fast your body heals. So it’s important to get rid of the swelling.

One way to remove swelling is to raise your leg up and allow the swelling to drain out. While resting and icing, it is best to put your foot up on a 45 degree incline. This means sitting in the Lazyboy recliner won’t cut it. You want your ankle higher than your heart so the fluid will travel back towards your body – and out of your leg.

Place a few pillows on the end of a recliner or on the armrest of your couch, and lay back. From there you will be in the perfect position for reading a good book, catching up on your favorite TV shows AND helping swelling return back into your body.

About Brian Milnarich

Brian Milnarich, MBA, LAT, is a licensed athletic trainer at Affinity Health System. Brian specializes in the prevention, recognition, treatment and rehabilitation of orthopedic and sports medicine injuries. He has worked with athletes in youth sports, high school, college and professional rankings. Brian is specially trained in the evaluation of gait analysis and has worked with local runners and exercise enthusiasts throughout the Fox Valley for the past twelve years. Brian received his degree in Athletic Training and Health Promotion and Wellness from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.

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