An ankle sprain is an injury where the ligaments around your ankle get overstretched or torn. This is one of the most common sports injuries. In most cases, your foot rolls outward or inward and you feel a sharp pain in your ankle. This is different from what is known as a high ankle sprain, a condition that affects a different set of ligaments located above the ankle joint.
Sprained ankles often occur when you play sports that call for quick changes of direction, such as basketball or soccer. You can also roll your foot when running on an uneven playing surface or by landing on another player’s foot.
The key ankle sprain symptoms are:
Classic signs of an ankle sprain are:
A sprained ankle can usually be treated nonsurgically with early intervention and, in some cases, physical therapy. It is important to reduce swelling very soon after your injury. The standard, immediate treatment is known as the RICE protocol, which stands for:
As soon as you injure yourself, sit or lie down and take your weight off of your foot.
Apply ice or a medical ice pack to your ankle for 20 minutes at a time (not longer) at least twice a day or as often as every two hours. Do this for three days after your hurt your ankle.
Wear a compressive wrap to help reduce swelling, which will help the ankle ligaments heal in their natural position. If the ankle remains swollen for longer periods, the ligaments may heal in a stretched-out position. This can weaken them and lead to a separate condition known as ankle instability. About one in 10 people who sprain an ankle will develop this condition, either due to a ligament tear or because they don't effectively reduce swelling during the healing process.
When sitting or lying down, keep your ankle elevated above the level of your heart. Do this for several hours each day.
You may also take over-the-counter pain relievers. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) are best, because they also reduce swelling.
Physical therapy may be recommended for more serious sprains. Your therapist can guide you on the appropriate level, type and timing of exercises that will help you strengthen your ankle and regain balance and flexibility without causing reinjury to the ankle.
You should see a doctor if you have persistent moderate or severe pain, swelling or bruising after applying the treatments above for three to five days. But if the pain or other symptoms are very intense, you should see an orthopedist or sports medicine doctor as soon as possible to ensure that you do not have a broken ankle or to learn whether your sprain is severe enough to require special treatment.
You should limit weightbearing as comfort permits for at least a few days, and then increase weightbearing as you can tolerate it. In the case of a severe sprain and slow recovery, your doctor may prescribe a CAM walker boot or ankle brace to provide protective weightbearing.
Healing time depends largely on the severity of the sprain. With appropriate treatment, a minor sprain may heal in as little as five days. In more severe sprains, it may take up to six weeks.
Explore more detailed information on this condition in the articles below. If you think you may have sprained your ankle and want to see a doctor, review our list of Treating Physicians or contact HSS Ortho Injury Care.