You do not have to be an athlete to sprain your ankle. Any number of everyday activities can cause injury, from carrying groceries to the car, to walking your dog, or just cleaning the house.
Depending on the severity of the sprain, the resulting ankle pain can hamper your mobility, and negatively impact your quality of life. Sometimes, they can even be more painful and take longer to heal than other injuries, like fractures, or lead to long-term conditions that cause ankle pain when walking. For those reasons, even if you think the injury is minor, it is important to seek medical attention any time you suspect an ankle injury.
At EmergeOrtho, our team of foot and ankle specialists are experts in diagnosing and treating these common injuries. Using the most advanced techniques, they will uncover the source of your ankle pain and help you Emerge Stronger. Healthier. Better.
What is an Ankle Sprain?
An ankle sprain occurs when you twist, turn, or roll your ankle in a way that exceeds the joint’s range of motion and stretches or tears the ligaments that hold it in place. Ligaments are tough bands of connective tissue that help to stabilize and hold your bones together. Damaged ligaments allow the ankle joint to move excessively, resulting in ankle pain.
How to Identify an Ankle Sprain
It is not unusual to roll your ankle in the course of normal activity. A minor stumble might cause slight pain or discomfort for a few minutes, but there is no injury. However, if the pain does not subside quickly or is accompanied by other symptoms, it is possible your ankle is sprained.
Some of the most common signs of an ankle sprain include:
- A feeling of ankle instability
- Swelling around your ankle
- Popping noise at the time of injury
- Ankle hurts to walk on
- Restricted range of motion
Depending on the severity of these symptoms, you may be able to heal at home without any medical intervention — or you may need to see a doctor for help stabilizing the joint and regain strength.
When to See a Doctor for a Sprained Ankle
Physicians rate ankle sprains on a grading scale of 1-3, with a Grade 1 sprain the least severe. These are minor injuries that you can most likely treat at home. However, grade two and three sprains require professional care. The differences between the different grades of injury can often be subtle, so it is always a safe bet to have any lingering issue and certainly any significant ankle injury evaluated.
Symptoms of each grade are as follows:
- Mild tenderness
- Mild swelling around the ankle joint
- Minor ankle pain when weight-bearing on that leg
- Indicates microscopic tears in ligament fibers and a slight stretching
- Moderate tenderness
- Moderate swelling around the ankle joint
- Significant ankle discomfort when weight-bearing
- Some abnormal looseness in the ankle joint
- Indicates a partial tear in the ligament
- Severe tenderness
- Severe swelling around the ankle joint
- Severe ankle pain when weight-bearing
- Substantial instability in the ankle joint
- Indicates a complete tear of the ligament
Determining the precise grade of any ankle sprain requires medical attention, and in some cases, imaging tests like MRI to determine the severity of the tear. It may also be necessary to perform other tests, such as X-rays, to rule out other injuries (including fractures), which can sometimes occur along with a sprain or present similarly to sprain but in actuality be a much different problem.
Can an Ankle Sprain Become Something Worse?
Although most ankle sprains heal without long-term issues, without proper treatment even a minor sprain can become much more severe.
For example, most minor sprains heal within two weeks with the proper at-home treatment, which includes the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) protocol. However, if you ignore the sprain and continue overusing the joint before it is fully healed, the injury may get worse.
Ligaments that have been weakened by a minor sprain could easily be torn completely with one misstep. A complete ligament tear requires surgery and an extensive recovery period, including months of physical therapy.
Minor injuries becoming more serious is not the only potential outcome of ignoring an ankle sprain. An unhealed sprain can lead to chronic ankle instability when repeated or prolonged sprains weaken the ankle’s structure. Without its intended structure intact, the ankle can permanently feel unstable, painful, tender, or not function well.
An untreated ankle sprain can also develop into ankle osteoarthritis later in life. Excess movement and instability in the joint can lead to inflammation, which causes pain and affects mobility. Although it is still possible to develop arthritis with ankle sprain treatment, the likelihood is lower.
Getting Treatment for Your Ankle Sprain
If you are unsure whether you sprained your ankle or are asking yourself, “why does my ankle hurt,” we recommend playing it safe and seeing a doctor.
After all, getting a professional opinion on the state of your ankle pain can head off months of physical therapy and potentially a lifetime of discomfort. EmergeOrtho’s Foot and Ankle Specialists and our orthopedic urgent care providers treat hundreds of sprained ankles every year. Do not let a prolonged ankle sprain keep you from what you enjoy doing most or turn into something worse.
Visit one of our urgent care locations or request an appointment now.