Every day in the USA approximately 25,000 people sprain an ankle. They can be weekend warriors, serious athletes or couch potatoes. Yes, it is possible to sprain an ankle if you take a mis-step rising from the couch.
Your bones are held together by tissue fibers called collagen fibers and ligaments, which allow motion of the bones. These fibers flex with movement but they have a range within which they can stretch. And there is a limit to this range. When they stretch beyond this limit, the result is an ankle sprain.
The seriousness of the sprain depends on whether you have only torn the collagen fibers or whether you have completely ruptured the ligament. Based on this criteria, the medical profession grades sprains in categories of one to three. The least severe is a Grade 1 sprain. Here, the ligaments have been stretched beyond their flexing capabilities but they are not torn. In a Grade 2 sprain, the ligaments are partially torn but there is no instability of the ankle. A Grade 3 sprain is the most serious. The ligaments are completely torn and there is instability. For all types of sprain, the symptoms are the same. You will experience pain and swelling.
When you think you have sprained your ankle, it is important to see your doctor. There are many tiny bones in your feet and you want to be very sure that you have only sprained your ankle and not broken a bone. As part of your diagnosis, your doctor may take an x-ray to be certain.
Some sprains require splinting or casting and only your doctor can determine this. Higher grade sprains require more extensive treatment and take longer to heal. With a Grade 1 sprain you may only need rest and ice packs to help the swelling and an over-the-counter pain reliever such as Aspirin. However, failure to get the proper diagnosis and treatment in the beginning can cause many unpleasant and expensive problems further down the road.
If you have a Grade 2 sprain, your doctor may recommend that you wear an ankle brace until the sprain heals and use crutches for a short time.
In the case of a severe sprain, your ankle joint may be unstable. If this is the case you may require a cast to immobilize the joint until it heals. You may also be referred to a orthopedic specialist for further evaluation.
Even after you return to normal activity your doctor may recommend an ankle brace to support the ankle and protect it from re-injury.
As with any injury, recovery time will depend on the seriousness of the sprain. Regardless of the severity, you can speed up the healing process by staying off your ankle and resting it as much as possible. No matter what the grade of injury, unless it is splinted or casted, your doctor will probably tell you to apply ice packs to relieve swelling and pain.
It is also important to wear a comfortable shoe that provides significant support. For women, this is not the time for high heels and sling backs.
Finally, as soon as you can you should exercise the ankle to condition and strengthen the muscles around the joint. Your doctor will recommend exercises to do this.