Chances are, you’ve probably experienced that horrible feeling of your ankle twisting, whether you’re out walking on an uneven path or playing sports. Most people who twist their ankle bounce back from the scare unscathed. But if your twisted ankle becomes swollen and painful, you’ve likely suffered some ligament damage. Enter the sprained ankle.
Ankle sprains are incredibly common. And though they may not sound as bad as a broken ankle, they can still cause substantial pain and swelling. An ankle sprain can also go on to cause long-term joint pain or weakness, so it’s essential that you manage the injury with respect, even if it’s not severe.
What Causes an Ankle Sprain?
An ankle sprain is generally caused by a quick shifting motion made while your foot is planted, forcing the ligaments on the outside of the foot to stretch further than normal. This usually occurs because the ankle rolls outward as the foot turns inward. This is known as an “inversion injury.”1
You’ve probably experienced this sensation, even if you didn’t injure yourself … by stepping into a hole in the sidewalk (or off a curb), or “rolling” your ankle while running or going downstairs. Perhaps it didn’t result in a sprain, but it certainly could. Athletes, in particular, often suffer ankle sprains – especially those who engage in contact sports.
Though less common, it is possible to get an eversion ankle injury, where the foot twists outward instead of inward. This type of ankle sprain is often coupled with a fractured fibula.2 Ouch!
What are the Symptoms of an Ankle Sprain?
It’s pretty easy to establish whether you’ve sprained your ankle. You’ll feel pain right away at the injury site, and your ankle will likely start to swell. You may also notice some redness and bruising soon after, and your ankle might also become stiff – likely from the swelling.
With severe sprains, you may hear, or feel, a “pop” – because the ankle ligaments may actually tear. You may not be able to turn or flex your foot, or even walk.3
How Do I Recover From an Ankle Sprain?
With a combination of rest, a reduction in swelling, and proper rehabilitation exercises, most ankle sprains will mend. If you believe you have a severe ankle sprain, however, you should definitely see a doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible. However, the most common ankle sprain injury can be managed from home.
The best way to begin to ease the discomfort of your ankle sprain is by using the famed RICE approach: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.4
- Rest by keeping your weight off the ankle – ideally for 24-48 hours. You may need to use crutches to walk.
- Ice the injury for 20 minutes every 4 hours for the first 48-72 hours.
- Compression may help to reduce swelling. You can do this by using an elastic compression bandage/wrap for the first 24-36 hours. Be mindful of not cutting off your circulation. The wrap should still be at a comfortable tightness …just not so tight that it totally restricts blood flow.
- Elevation also helps reduce swelling and bruising. Raise your ankle above the level of your heart for 2-3 hours per day.
Next, you’ll want to start on a consistent program of ankle exercises. These can easily be done at home. The most basic of all rehab exercises is ankle stretches.
5 Easy Ankle Stretches For Sprains
Stretching allows your ankle to heal faster by ensuring that it doesn’t seize up, allowing you to retain normal ankle motion as you improve. It also strengthens all of the supporting muscles that your ankle relies on for maximum support.
Here are five easy ankle stretches that you can do from home – no specialized equipment necessary.
1. Plantar Flexion and Dorsiflexion Stretch
This may sound complicated, but “plantar flexion” simply involves pointing your toes as far as you can (much like a ballet exercise), and “dorsiflexion” involves bringing your toes up and flexing them closer to your shin. The combination of these two movements is a great exercise for the early stages of injury, and it may help prevent your ankle from seizing up.
To begin, pull the foot up as far as it will go (dorsiflexion) and hold for a couple of seconds, then point it away from you (plantar flexion) and hold it again for a couple of seconds in that position. Try to complete two sets of 20 reps, even while your ankle is iced and elevated, as the motion can help to reduce swelling.
In this exercise, you’re avoiding any side movements that may exacerbate your damaged ankle ligaments.
2. Towel Stretch
Sit with your legs out straight in front of you. Twist a large towel, and place it under the ball of your foot, while holding the towel at both ends. Gently pull the towel toward you, but keep your knee straight. You’ll want to hold this ankle stretch for around 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 2-4 times.
If the ankle sprain is bad, it may be too painful to pull this stretch far enough to feel a good calf stretch. Listen to your pain, and only do as much as it allows. You can also use an exercise band for this stretch.
3. Soleus Stretch
The soleus is a muscle in the back part of the lower leg – in the calf region. It runs from just below the knee joint all the way to the heel, and it lies underneath the gastrocnemius (what you know as your main calf muscle). The soleus helps you to stand and to walk.
Strengthening muscles like the soleus, which help support your ankle, will help you to keep your ankle joint stable.
To stretch the soleus muscle, your legs should be in a very short lunge position facing a wall. Get up nice and close to the wall, so that your front foot touches it. Both legs should be bent. The back leg should be the leg that needs to be stretched.
Now, push your hands against the wall, keeping both heels down. You should feel a stretch down near the ankle at the back of the leg. Hold for a few seconds, and return to a standing position. Repeat several times, again, being careful not to overdo it. Listen to your pain, and stop when you need to.
If you’re very flexible, you may not feel these ankle stretches. A more advanced version of this stretch is to place the front foot flat against the wall vertically (as much as possible) so that your heel is on the floor, and toes are facing upwards. Now, push into the wall with your hands once more.
4. Tracing the Alphabet
This exercise is so simple, but it encourages ankle movement in all directions. It’s known as a range of motion stretch. Using your big toe, simply trace out the alphabet from A to Z – once to three times, depending on your current pain threshold.
5. Inversion and Eversion Ankle Stretches
Because this exercise involves the same “sideways” motion that caused the injured ankle, it’s important for re-strengthening the area. But it’s an advanced exercise that should only be started once pain allows and healing has begun.
Inversion is where the sole of the foot is tilted inwards towards the body, while eversion is where the sole is tilted outwards and away from the body.
Start by slowly turning the foot so that the sole of your foot points outward, and then, come back slowly, so that it points inwards. Make these movements gradually, and listen to any pain. Keep your knee still. You can also slowly circle your ankle to move the joint into these same positions.
It can be so easy to get lax on exercises, especially once you start to feel good again. But ankle stretches should be continued beyond your ankle injury. Once you’re back on the field, the court, or just out walking again, it’s vital that you stretch both before and after physical activity. This will help to minimize any kind of re-injury.
You should likewise continue with strength, balance, and control exercises several times a week to ensure that your ankle remains strong and flexible. Don’t underestimate how an injured ankle can weaken the region.
Consult with a physical therapist if you have any concerns over the healing of your ankle sprain injury.