Sprained Ankle Treatment and Prevention
Get fast relief with this detailed, step-by-step ankle sprain treatment process.
by Brad Walker | First Published December 8, 2002 | Updated September 8, 2017
In part 1, we took a look at exactly what a sprained ankle is. We had a look at the structures that make up the ankle joint; what happens when an ankle sprain occurs; the symptoms associated with an ankle sprain; and the major causes and risk factors that contribute to a sprained ankle.
If you suffer from ankle sprain or are seeking to prevent its occurrence it is important to follow the information in this article. In addition, adding a few simple stretches to your fitness program will also help. To get started on a safe and effective stretching routine that’s just right for you, check out the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.
In part 2, we’re going to start off by looking at the risk factors and common causes of ankle sprain, and then look at a number of prevention strategies to help reduce those risk factors.
Then we’re going to outline a detailed strategy for the complete treatment of an ankle sprain. Firstly, we’ll look at the importance of the immediate treatment (the first 48 to 72 hours). Secondly, we’ll outline the ongoing treatment necessary for a full recovery, and finally in part three, we’ll look at the rehabilitation and conditioning exercises needed to get your ankle joint back to 100%.
Ankle Sprain Prevention
In part 1 we outlined a number of common causes and risk factors associated with ankle sprains. They included: a lack of conditioning; inadequate warm up and stretching; inadequate footwear; training on uneven ground; and the big one, a previous history of ankle sprains.
So what are some of the things you can do to help prevent an ankle sprain?
- Warm Up properly
A good warm up is essential in getting the body ready for any activity. A well structured warm up will prepare your heart, lungs, muscles, joints and your mind for strenuous activity.
- Plyometric Training
Plyometric drills include jumping, skipping, bounding, and hopping type activities. These explosive types of exercises help to condition and prepare the muscles, tendons and ligaments at the ankle joint.
- Balancing Exercises
Any activity that challenges your ability to balance, and keep your balance, will help what’s called proprioception: – your body’s ability to know where it’s limbs are at any given time.
- Stretch and Strengthen
I’ll cover these in a lot more detail a little later on when I discuss rehabilitation and conditioning exercises.
Be aware of the importance of good footwear. A good pair of shoes will help to keep your ankle stable, provide adequate cushioning, and support your foot and lower leg during the running or walking motion.
Strapping, or taping can provide an added level of support and stability to weak or injured ankles. For a detailed description of how to strap an ankle properly, watch the short 2 minute video below.
Sprained Ankle Treatment
The immediate treatment of any soft tissue injury is vital. Proper care and treatment now will go a long way towards a full recovery later.
Without a doubt, the most effective, initial treatment for ankle sprains is the R.I.C.E.R. regimen. This involves the application of (R) rest, (I) ice, (C) compression, (E) elevation and obtaining a (R) referral for appropriate medical treatment.
Where the R.I.C.E.R. regimen has been used immediately after the occurrence of an injury, it has been shown to significantly reduce recovery time. R.I.C.E.R. forms the first, and perhaps most important stage of injury rehabilitation, providing the early base for the complete recovery of injury.
When an ankle injury occurs and the ligaments have been damaged there is a large amount of uncontrolled bleeding around the injury site. This excessive bleeding causes swelling, which puts pressure on nerve endings and results in increased pain. It is exactly this process of bleeding, swelling and pain that the R.I.C.E.R. regimen will help to alleviate.
R: (rest) It is important that the injured ankle be kept as still as possible. This will help to slow down blood flow to the ankle and prevent any further damage.
I: (ice) By far the most important part. The application of ice will have the greatest effect on reducing bleeding, swelling and pain. Apply ice as soon as possible after the injury has occurred.
How do you apply ice? Crushed ice in a plastic bag is usually best. However, blocks of ice, commercial cold packs and bags of frozen peas will all do fine. Even cold water from a tap is better than nothing at all.
When using ice, be careful not to apply it directly to the skin. This can cause “ice burns” and skin damage. Wrapping the ice in a damp towel generally provides the best protection for the skin.
How long? How often? This is the point where few people agree. Let me give you some figures to use as a rough guide, and then I’ll give you some advice from personal experience. The most common recommendation is to apply ice for 20 minutes every 2 hours for the first 48 to 72 hours.
These figures are a good starting point, but remember, they’re only a guide. You must take into account that some people are more sensitive to cold than others. Also be aware that children and elderly people have a lower tolerance to ice and cold. Finally, people with circulatory problems are also more sensitive to ice. Remember to keep these things in mind when treating yourself or someone else with ice.
Personally, I recommend that people use their own judgement when applying ice to themselves. For some people, 20 minutes is way too much. For others, especially well conditioned athletes, they can leave ice on for much longer. The individual should make the decision as to how long the ice should stay on.
My personal recommendation is that people should apply ice for as long as it is comfortable. Obviously, there will be a slight discomfort from the cold, but as soon as pain or excessive discomfort is experienced, it’s time to remove the ice. It’s much better to apply ice for 3 to 5 minutes a couple of time an hour, than not at all.
C: (compression) Compression actually achieves two things. Firstly, it helps to reduce both the bleeding and swelling around the ankle joint, and secondly, it provides support for the ankle. Simply use a wide, firm, elastic, compression bandage to cover the entire ankle and lower leg.
E: (elevation) Simply raise the injured ankle above the level of the heart at all possible times. This will further help to reduce the bleeding and swelling.
R: (referral) If the injury is severe enough, it is important that you consult a professional physical therapist or a qualified sports doctor for an accurate diagnosis. They will be able to tell you the full extent of the injury.
Before we finish with the initial treatment and move onto the next phase of the rehabilitation process, there are a few things that you must avoid during the first 72 hours.
Be sure to avoid any form of heat at the injury site. This includes heat lamps, heat creams, spas, Jacuzzi’s and saunas. Avoid all movement and massage of the injured area. Also avoid excessive alcohol. All these things will increase the bleeding, swelling and pain of your injury. Avoid them at all costs.
After the first 48 to 72 hours?
So what happens after the first 48 to 72 hours? Lets first take a quick look at how damaged ligaments repair themselves.
When any sort of damage occurs to the ligaments, the body immediately goes into a process of repair. Where the individual fibres have been ruptures, or torn, the body begins to bind the damaged fibres together using a fibrous protein called collagen. Or, as it’s more commonly known, scar tissue!
You see, when a ligament is torn, you would expect that the body would repair that tear with new ligament. In reality, this doesn’t happen. The tear, or rupture, is repaired with scar tissue.
Now this might not sound like a big deal, but if you have ever suffered an ankle injury, (or any soft tissue injury) you’ll know how annoying it is to keep re-injuring that same old injury, over and over again.
Scar tissue is made from a very tough, inflexible fibrous material. This fibrous material binds itself to the damaged ligaments in an effort to draw the damaged fibres back together. What results is a bulky mass of fibrous scar tissue completely surrounding the injury site. In some cases it’s even possible to see and feel this bulky mass under the skin.
When scar tissue forms around an injury site, it is never as strong as the ligaments it replaces. It also has a tendency to contract and deform the surrounding tissues, so not only is the strength of the tissue diminished, but flexibility of the tissue is also compromised.
So, how do we get rid of that annoying formation of scar tissue?
Firstly, you must keep active! Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to do nothing. Now is the time to start active rehabilitation. Most of the swelling will have subsided after the first 48 to 72 hours and you are now ready to start light activity.
Light activity will not only promotes blood circulation, but it will also activate the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is vital in clearing the body of toxins and waste products, which can accumulate in the body following a sports injury. Activity is the only way to activate the lymphatic system.
Before we move on, a quick word of warning. Never, Never, Never do any activity that hurts the injured area. Of course you may feel some discomfort, but NEVER, NEVER push yourself to the point where you’re feeling pain. Listen to your body. Don’t over do it at this stage of the recovery, you’ve come too far to blow it now.
To remove most of the unwanted scar tissue, you now need to start two vital treatments. The first is commonly used by physical therapists (or physiotherapists), and primarily involves increasing the blood supply to the injured area. The aim is to increase the amount of oxygen and nutrients to the damaged tissues.
You see, ligaments receive very little blood supply, as compared to a muscle for example. So it’s vitally important to increase the blood flow to the injured ligaments. This will help supply the ligaments with the oxygen and nutrients they need for a speedy recovery.
Physical Therapists accomplish this aim by using a number of treatments to stimulate the injured area. The most common methods used are ultrasound, TENS and heat.
Ultrasound uses high frequency sound waves to stimulate the affected area, while TENS (or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) uses a light electrical pulse to stimulate the injured area. And heat, in the form of a ray lamp or hot water bottle, is also very effective in stimulating blood flow to the damaged tissues.
Secondly, to remove the unwanted scar tissue it is vital that you start to massage the injured ankle ligaments. While ultrasound and heat will help the injured area, they will not remove the scar tissue. Only massage will be able to do that.
To start with, the ankle will be quite tender. So start with a light stroke and gradually increase the pressure until you’re able to use firm strokes.
Concentrate your effort at the direct point of injury, and use your thumbs to get in as deep as possible to break down the scar tissue.
Just a few final points before we move on. Be sure to drink plenty of fluid during your injury rehabilitation. The extra fluid will help to flush a lot of the waste products from your body.
Also, I recommend you purchase a special ointment to use for your massage called Rub-on-Relief. This special ointment is extremely effective in treating soft tissue injuries, like sprains, strains and tears. It includes all-natural ingredients, has zero side effects and best of all, it’s quite cheap. You can purchase this ointment from the link above.
As usual, I’ve gone on way too long, and I’m not finished with this topic yet. I still need to cover the rehabilitation and conditioning exercises needed to get your ankle joint back to 100%, but I’m going to have to leave it till next issue. This final part of the rehabilitation process is vitally important, and I think it deserves an entire issue.
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.