A sprained ankle is an injury to one or more ligaments in the ankle. Mild sprains may involve overstretching and irritating the ligaments, while severe sprains can cause the ligaments to tear completely.
Ankle sprains are common injuries, particularly among people who play sports.
They can be very painful, and severe sprains can require months of recovery. However, a person can do several things at home to help speed their healing and reduce the risk of reinjury.
Below, find out what to do after spraining an ankle. We describe first aid and longer-term methods of supporting recovery.
Anyone who thinks that they have sprained an ankle should receive first aid.
Avoid putting any weight on the ankle, as this increases the risk of broken bones and other injuries. Sit in a comfortable position, with the ankle elevated to reduce swelling.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, can also help alleviate swelling and pain.
If possible, wear a temporary brace or bandage to support the joint and prevent it from moving.
If crutches are available, some people find that they can help with balance and mobility while allowing the ankle to rest.
It is difficult to diagnose an ankle sprain based on symptoms alone. For this reason, a person should see a doctor.
Most family physicians and doctors at urgent care clinics can quickly diagnose a sprained ankle. If the injury is very serious, they may refer the person to an orthopedist or foot and ankle surgeon.
The following methods of home care may support faster recovery while helping to protect against further injuries.
The acronym RICE stands for: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Doctors often recommend these tactics to reduce swelling and inflammation in the days after an injury.
Resting the ankle is key for healing, and wearing a brace can help stabilize the injured area. Attempting to return to sports or other activities too quickly increases the risk of another injury.
Using an ice pack may reduce blood flow to the injury and help ease pain and swelling.
The American Academy of Family Physicians suggest applying an ice pack to the sprain for 10–20 minutes at a time. Wrap the pack in a towel before laying it against the skin.
However, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association reviewed the evidence for the use of ice on injuries in 2013. They found that, while doctors commonly recommend applying ice, there is limited evidence to support its effectiveness.
If ice does not help relieve symptoms, use other treatments instead.
Compression helps stabilize the injured joint and may reduce swelling.
Try wrapping a bandage around the injured ankle. The bandage should be snug, but not so tight that it digs into the skin, hurts, or causes numbness.
Elevating a sprained ankle reduces the accumulation of fluid in the joint. This can ease swelling, which may also help reduce pain.
Try sleeping with the foot and ankle propped up on pillows at a level higher than the heart. When sitting or resting, use pillows or a footrest to keep the foot and ankle elevated.
Heat increases blood flow to an injury, which can speed healing. Some people also find that it helps relax tight muscles, easing pain and tension.
However, do not use heat while the ankle is still swollen, as this can increase inflammation and slow healing.
Once the swelling goes down, try applying a heat pack for 15–20 minutes at a time.
Some people find relief from alternating heat and ice packs. Only try this after the swelling is gone — not immediately after the injury.
An injury to the ankle puts nearby muscles and other structures at risk of damage. This is especially likely if the tissues have become weak from disuse.
Stretching keeps the muscles strong and limber. It also helps more blood circulate to the area, which may help the ankle heal faster.
Gently stretch the ankle by moving it in all directions at least three times each day. Try flexing the foot forward, then backward, or rolling it clockwise, then counterclockwise.
However, it is important to avoid overextending the ankle or moving it in any direction that hurts.
The pain and swelling that immediately follow an ankle sprain may be severe. This can make it impossible for a person to put any weight on the joint.
As the swelling goes down, walking can promote healing. Start by walking short distances within the house. Then, gradually build up to longer distances as the ankle begins to heal.
However, walking may require a person to hold the injured ankle in an unusual position or twist the body to avoid putting excess weight on the joint. If this is the case, wait 1–2 days, then try again.
Exercise can restore strength and balance, while preventing the muscles in the area from weakening. This can reduce the risk of another sprain.
After the swelling goes down and walking is comfortable, it may be a good idea to start exercising the ankle.
A person can try performing the following exercises for 10–15 minutes every other day:
- On a low step, stand with the heels hanging backward over the edge. Drop the heels slightly, and hold the position for a few seconds. Then, elevate the heels above the toes.
- Balance on one foot for 30–60 seconds, then switch sides, to promote equal strength in both joints.
- Loop an elastic exercise band under the foot for gentle resistance. Move the ankle clockwise, then counterclockwise.
- Play catch while balancing on one leg, then the other.
Massage can help ease pain while promoting blood flow to the sprained area.
If the injury is particularly severe or painful, a person should seek advice from a qualified massage therapist.
For less severe injuries, a person can try gentle massage at home. Some people find that massaging the bottom of the foot or heel provides relief. Others prefer to massage around or just above the ankle.
A person should stop massaging the area if it causes pain or worsens symptoms.
Physical therapy may especially benefit anyone who experiences long-term pain following a serious sprain and anyone with a history of similar injuries.
A physical therapist will perform an exam of the person’s ankle to identify weak muscles and other issues that can cause pain and increase the risk of injury.
They will also ask about the person’s lifestyle, including any sports.
The physical therapist will use this information to create a customized exercise plan that promotes healing and eases pain.
According to a popular myth, a doctor can do nothing to treat a sprain. It is true that sprains do not usually require casts and often heal on their own.
However, the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons recommend that anyone who suspects that they have a sprain see a doctor. They may be mistaken and have a different injury that requires treatment, or they may have additional injuries, such as broken bones, which is common.
Also, a doctor can assess the severity of the sprain. Particularly serious sprains can require surgery, physical therapy, and other long-term treatments. Delaying medical attention can delay rehabilitation.
If the pain is mild and a person prefers home treatment, they can wait a day or two. If the swelling does not go down or the pain gets worse, they should see a doctor.
Sprains are common and usually heal on their own. However, severe sprains that completely sever the ligament may require months of healing and possibly surgery.
Do not ignore the pain of an ankle sprain or assume that there is nothing a doctor can do. Prompt treatment can speed recovery and reduce the risk of a chronic or secondary injury.