How to Treat a Sprained Ankle

Man Sprained Ankle

If you’ve experienced an ankle sprain you’ll know it’s a painful injury that can put you out of action for some time. For athletes, sprained ankles can delay training and make it difficult to return to sport after downtime.

But treating a sprained ankle correctly can shorten recovery time and help you get back to what you do best. In this article, we’ll cover what to do for a sprained ankle.

What is a sprained ankle?

Runner Holding Sprained Ankle

An ankle sprain occurs when the ligaments in your ankle become overstretched and/or torn. An ankle sprain can occur as the result of accidentally stepping in a hole where your foot is forced to bend in an unusual direction.

Ankle sprains occur commonly in all kinds of sports that require running, dodging, tackling, and other footwork. Football, basketball, netball, rugby, tennis, and hockey are examples of sports where players risk an ankle sprain if they lend their feet in an awkward position.

An ankle sprain shouldn’t be confused with an ankle strain. Here are the differences:

Sprain Strain
Commonly affects wrists, ankles, knees, fingers, and thumbs. Commonly affect the back, knees, feet, and legs.
A ligament is twisted. Stretched, or torn. A muscle is overstretched or torn.

Strain vs Sprain

Ankle Sprain Grades

Sprained ankles are graded to describe the extent of the injury.

  1. Grade 1 ankle sprain: mild. The sprain involves an overstretched ligament. The ankle feels bruised and slightly painful, there may also be swelling. You are able to put some weight on your foot.
  2. Grade 2 ankle sprain: moderate. The sprain involves an overstretch and a tear. The ankle shows quite a bit of swelling and the area is moderately painful. It is difficult to put weight on your foot.
  3. Grade 3 ankle sprain: severe. The ligament is completely torn. There is quick severe swelling, bruising and pain at the injury site and putting any weight on the foot results in quite a lot of pain.

Grades of ankle sprains

What does a sprained ankle feel like?

So how can you tell that your ankle is sprained and not strained or suffering a different injury? There are a few signals that you can use to judge whether you’ve experienced an ankle sprain. If you’re not sure, it’s best to visit your doctor for an examination.

Many ankle injuries result in bruising, swelling, and pain. sprained ankle bruising and swelling is also very common even for grade 1 sprains.

You may have a limited range of motion depending on how severe the injury is. One way to tell if you have an ankle sprain is if you experience a ‘popping’ sound or sensation when moving your ankle. This is the damaged ligament moving under the skin.

Was there a noise such as a crack or a crunch when the injury occurred? If so this could indicate a fracture. Another indicator of a fracture is a misshapen ankle and one that can’t tolerate your weight after a few days.

Strained ankles may feel stiff and you could experience muscle cramps in the injured leg.

Sprained Ankle Treatment

For sprained ankle treatment at home and in the first two days after the injury, follow the steps for RICE therapy.

  1. R: rest. Cease sports activities and try to keep your weight off the ankle. Spend time resting it or use some crutches to help you with mobility to keep the ankle protected from your body weight.
  2. I: ice. Apply an ice pack for around 20 minutes every two or three hours immediately after the injury and in the next two days.
  3. C: compression. Support the injury by wrapping it in a cohesive bandage. This will provide ankle support for sprain pain and keep it immobilised and help with the reduction of swelling.
  4. E: elevation. Keep the ankle raised on a pillow for as much time as possible in the first two days of injury.

Taking over the counter painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen can help with the pain of a sprained ankle. Check the product packaging to make sure you can take the medicine as over-the-counter painkillers are not for everyone. Your pharmacist may also be able to recommend a cream or gel to apply directly to the area to soothe it.

Icing a Sprained Ankle

The best treatment for sprained ankles starts with bringing down any swelling. When an ankle sprain strikes and you’re out and about, especially during sports, you likely won’t have access to an ice bag. This is why we recommend carrying instant ice in your first aid kit. Using an instant ice pack means you don’t need to worry about ice cubes. Just shake and squeeze the bag to activate it via an endothermic process.

We also carry fast-acting freeze spray for instant relief of pain, swelling, and bruising.

For cold therapy at home a reusable hot and cold pack is ideal as it can be placed in the freezer ready for icing, re-frozen and reused for multiple applications. 

How to Wrap a Sprained Ankle

The following sports taping technique can be used to immobilise the ankle joint to assist with rehabilitation from an ankle sprain. This can be used in addition to a lateral compression taping technique where an adhesive felt horseshoe or L shape is applied to the ankle joint with cohesive bandage wrapped around the ankle to provide compression. Cohesive bandage can also be used to hold ice packs in place.

Ankle Sprain Taping helps with recovery from a sprained ankle by immobilising the joint while the ligaments heal. If you know how to tape a sprained ankle you can speed up recovery and prevent complications.

Zinc oxide tape is commonly recommended for taping sprained ankles as it offers high-tensile, robust support and its non-stretchy quality will provide good immobilisation of the joint. We include zinc oxide tape in our sports first aid kit for eventualities like this.

You will need:

  1. Wash and dry the ankle. Gather everything you need before you start to wrap the ankle. You should have enough bandage to wrap it around the ankle several times.
  2. Wrap the bandage around the ball of the foot a couple of times. The bandage should be kept taut but not so much that it is squeezing the foot, just wrapped firmly around it.
  3. Start to circle the bandage around the arch of the foot, pulling it diagonally from the ball of the foot over the top and around the ankle in a figure of eight pattern.
  4. Finish by wrapping the bandage around the ankle a couple of times and securing it in place. Our Zinc oxide tape is self-adhesive making bandaging much easier and ensuring it stays in place.
  5. You could follow by covering the foot with a sock to help keep everything in place.

Ankle Sprain Exercises

Ankle sprain rehab involves gentle re-introduction to exercise to help the ankle stretch and move and strengthen the muscles that support the joint. If you’re wondering ‘can you walk on a sprained ankle?’ the answer is yes, after a certain point.

It’s generally recommended that you keep off your injured ankle for around four weeks, but mild ankle sprains can take small amounts of exercise after a few days as long as you do not experience very much pain when doing so. Once the healing process is well underway, taking gentle, light exercise is a good idea.

Ankle exercises after sprains should start with gentle, range-of-motion activities that don’t require you to place pressure on the foot, gradually moving up to placing your whole body weight on the area. Examples of exercises you could do include:

  1. Ankle circles.
  2. ‘Drawing letters’ with your ankle.
  3. Towel curls (sitting with your foot flat with a towel underneath and using your toes to grasp the towel).
  4. Using a resistance band to stretch the ankle: sit on the floor with a straight leg and the band under your foot and point your toes to stretch.

How to Heal a Sprained Ankle Fast

We often see people searching for how to heal a sprained ankle overnight or how to heal a sprained ankle fast in 2 days but unfortunately, there’s no magic cure for an ankle sprain.

The delicate ligament muscles need time to rebuild and recover and although using the RICE method can give your body what it needs to get on with the natural healing process, there isn’t a way to make it happen any quicker than normal.

The best thing for sprained ankle recovery is to give the joint the rest it needs to heal up. Putting undue stress on the ankle before the ligament is fully healed could lead to a new tear.

Ankle sprains are a common occurrence in sports and knowing what to do in the first moments after the injury can help to control the severity of swelling, pain, bruising, and recovery time.

Whether you’re a player, athlete, coach, or trainer, make sure you’re always prepared for accidents and emergencies with a sports first aid kit and basic first aid training. Read our articles for more.

The Sterosport Sports First Aid Kit

Our kit is designed to meet the requirements and recommendations of sports national governing bodies in the UK. Among other essentials, it contains supplies to treat ankle sprains, including

How long does a sprained ankle take to heal?

Sprained ankle recovery time depends on how severe the injury is and the treatment it is receiving. Sprained ankle recovery usually lasts longer for grade 3 sprains than grade 1 and 2:

Grade 1 ankle sprain recovery time 1–3 weeks
Grade 2 ankle sprain recovery time 3–6 weeks
Grade 3 ankle sprain recovery time Several months

On average, sprained ankles heal up considerably after two weeks as long as they are looked after, although as much as a third of people still experience some pain a year afterwards. A full recovery relies on getting sufficient rest immediately after the injury, and then gentle rehabilitation through light and moderate exercise.

How long should you stay off a sprained ankle?

It’s best to avoid impact activity like running for at least four weeks to ensure the ligaments in the ankle have time to properly heal. Diving into sports activities while the ankle is still rebuilding the ligament tissue could result in further damage and prolong your overall downtime.

After a minimum of four weeks, gently resuming activity with light exercise is the best way to help the ankle regain strength.

How long does a sprained ankle stay swollen?

Pain and swelling for most ankle sprains should improve within 48 hours, but this is not always a signal that the ankle sprain has gotten better. It’s important to continue to treat the ankle with care for the next four weeks as you recover.

If you found this guide helpful, take a look at our other guides where we explain the steps for treating some other common sports injuries:

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