A sprained ankle is a common musculoskeletal injury. It can occur if someone twists their ankle awkwardly, straining and damaging the ligaments.

People may consider sprained ankles minor injuries, but although they are not life threatening, they can be extremely painful and debilitating.

Around 2 million acute ankle sprains occur each year in the United States. However, experts believe that the actual incidence of ankle sprains may be much higher since around 50% of people with these injuries do not seek medical attention.

Some ankle sprains require intensive care. However, people can usually treat the injury at home.

This article looks at how to wrap a sprained ankle, the outlook for a person with this type of injury, and when to seek medical attention.

A woman wraps her sprained angle with a bandage.Share on Pinterest
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A sprained ankle is an injury to the ligaments that support the ankle. Ligaments are tough bands of fibrous tissues that connect two bones at the joint, holding them in the proper, stable position. If these ligaments stretch beyond their limits, they can tear, causing pain and dysfunction.

Typically, ankle sprains involve the lateral ligaments situated on the outside of the ankle. Sprains range from microscopic tears in the ligament fibers to complete tissue breaks.

Doctors may classify sprains as mild, moderate, or severe depending on how much damage there is to the ligament.

  • Grade 1 sprain: This mild sprain means there is only slight stretching and microscopic tearing to the ligament fibers. A person with this type of sprain may experience slight tenderness and swelling.
  • Grade 2 sprain: This is a moderate injury involving a partial tear of the ligaments. The person may have moderate tenderness and swelling. A doctor may feel the joint is abnormally loose.
  • Grade 3 sprain: A person may have the complete tear of the ligament with significant tenderness and swelling in a severe sprain. A doctor may feel substantial ankle instability upon examination. If the ankle remains unstable, damage to the bones and cartilage of the ankle joint can eventually occur.

Wrapping a sprained ankle helps reduce swelling and allows the ankle ligaments to heal in a natural position. If a person has a swollen ankle, the ligaments can heal while stretched out, which reduces their functionality.

It is worth noting that a person should not wrap their ankle too tightly as this can restrict blood supply to the area.

Reduced circulation can interfere with the healing process and damage tissue in the ankle and foot. However, bandaging the ankle too loosely does not offer much benefit.

The steps below explain how to wrap a sprained ankle correctly:

  1. Ensure there is sufficient bandage to wrap around the foot and ankle several times.
  2. Keep the ankle at around a 90-degree angle.
  3. Begin by wrapping the bandage twice around the ball of the foot where the toes meet the foot.
  4. Keep the bandage taut by pulling gently and working upwards towards the ankle. Wrap the bandage diagonally from the bottom of the foot across the top, then around the ankle, following a figure of eight pattern.
  5. Complete the process by wrapping the bandage a couple of times around the lower leg around two inches above the ankle. Make sure the bandage covers the entire area from the ball of the foot to the ankle and heel.
  6. Either fasten the bandage using the fastener provided or smooth the edge to the rest of the bandage in the case of a self-adhering product.

The bandage should prevent excessive movement but should not feel uncomfortable. The person should remove the bandage and start again if it hurts or causes a tingling sensation in the foot.

For milder sprains, a doctor may recommend simple home treatment and following the RICE protocol, which involves:

  • Rest: The person should avoid using their ankle or placing weight upon it.
  • Ice: The person should apply ice, a cool pack, or a pack of frozen vegetables to the area to reduce swelling. They should ice the ankle for 20–30 minutes up to four times daily. Remember not to apply ice directly to the skin to avoid tissue damage.
  • Compression: Bandages or ACE wraps stop the ankle from moving and provide support.
  • Elevate: Raise the ankle above chest level as much as possible in the first two days following the injury.

A person can also take medications to ease pain and help with swelling. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Most people who use conservative, at-home injury management can return to their regular daily routine and sports within 2 weeks following a sprained ankle. However, some injuries may take up to 12 weeks or more to heal.

Doctors find that 25–40% of people with a sprained ankle develop chronic symptoms such as pain, instability, and recurrent sprains. In these cases, doctors may recommend that a person undergo physical therapy or reconstruction of the ligament.

The symptoms of a sprained ankle and a broken ankle may appear similar. Additionally, a person may have both a sprained and broken ankle.

The symptoms of a sprained ankle include:

  • swelling
  • bruising
  • tenderness
  • ankle instability

The symptoms of a broken ankle are similar. However, if a person cannot bear weight on the injury and a doctor finds they have tenderness in specific areas of the ankle, the doctor may order an X-ray to exclude a fracture.

Because the symptoms of an ankle sprain and a broken ankle are similar, people should consider contacting a doctor for a physical examination following any ankle injuries.

A person should consult a doctor if they cannot put weight on their ankle and are experiencing severe pain. Numbness and loss of feeling also require immediate evaluation by a doctor.

They should also seek medical attention under the following circumstances:

  • They have used the RICE protocol for a couple of days, and the pain and swelling are not improving.
  • The bruising, pain, or swelling is getting worse.
  • The ankle feels weak or unstable.
  • The person has any signs of an infection such as redness, warmth, and tenderness.

A sprained ankle involves damage to the ligaments of the ankle joint, which can vary in severity.

Most people can return to their regular activities in the weeks following an ankle sprain. If a person cares for the ankle properly, the ligaments typically heal quickly.

People should know how to wrap a sprained ankle so they can immediately provide support and limit swelling following an injury. This helps ensure the ligament heals correctly and prevents chronic ankle problems.