How to Heal a Sprained Ankle Fast

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or weekend warrior, when you twist your ankle and feel a pop, you may have just sprained your ankle. If your ankle becomes tender and swollen, chances are you have stretched or torn the ligaments resulting in a sprain.

While an ankle sprain is a common injury among both athletes and non-athletes, it should not be ignored.  If left untreated, it can easily be reinjured and can lead to long term joint pain and weakness.

What is an Ankle Sprain?

Your bones are connected by ligaments.  There are three ligaments in your ankle that are associated with sprains:

  • Anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL): located on the outside of the ankle, connecting the talus with the fibula.
  • Calcaneal fibular ligament (CFL): connects the fibula with the calcaneus bone.
  • Posterior talofibular ligament (PTFL): runs along the back of the ankle.

These ligaments can become injured by sudden turning or twisting of the ankle.  Depending on the extent of damage to the ligaments, these injuries are classified into the following 3 categories:

  • Grade 1: The ligament is stretched but there are no tears. This is a minor sprain accompanied by some discomfort, minimal pain and slight swelling.
  • Grade 2: This is a partial tear to the ligament accompanied by moderate pain, swelling, tenderness, and joint instability.
  • Grade 3: The ligament is completely torn. There is severe pain and tenderness and inability to bear weight.

What is a High Ankle Sprain?

A high ankle sprain is an injury to the high ankle ligaments known as the syndesmotic ligaments that connect the tibia and fibula. Because this type of sprain often damages several structures, recovery time is much longer than for a low ankle sprain.  Typical recovery time for a high ankle sprain varies from 8 weeks to 6 months.

Diagnosing a Sprained Ankle

You may have a sprained ankle if you have any combination of the following symptoms:

  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Pain
  • Instability
  • Inability to bear weight
  • Stiffness

If you suspect you have a sprained ankle you should see a physician to rule out more serious injuries such as a bone fracture or bone chipping.

Treating a Sprained Ankle

Treating a sprained ankle will help it to heal quickly and can prevent future injuries.  If you have a mild sprain you may want to treat it on your own.  If you cannot bear weight on the injured joint, you may have a Grade 3 sprain which should be treated by a doctor to make sure the surface of the ankle joint was not injured.

Treatments for a sprained ankle are varied.  There are many home remedy options as well as medical treatments.

Self-care options include:

  • RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation
  • H.E.M.: Healthy Blood Flow, Eliminate Swelling, Mobility
  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Epsom salt soak

Medical treatments are also available:

  • Laser therapy
  • Kinesio taping
  • Physical therapy

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Treating a Sprained Ankle at Home

There are many options for treating an ankle sprain at home. The most common protocol is called RICE.  Rest is needed to allow the injured ligaments to heal.  You should avoid excessive movement and weight bearing which can exacerbate the injury.

Minimize movement for the first 48 hours after the injury. During this time the ankle should be iced to help reduce the swelling.  Ice is also helpful to reduce the pain.  Ice should be applied for 20 minutes at a time, 4 to 8 times a day.  Do not apply ice directly to the skin – make sure there is a layer of material to protect the skin.

When you are not icing the injury, compression will help to minimize the swelling.  Elastic bandages and braces can be used to apply compression.  Finally, the injured ankle should be elevated above your heart to help blood flow which will also minimize swelling.

Another option is the H.E.M. ankle rehabilitation system which can reduce healing time and speed recovery. H.E.M is a three-step program developed by fitness expert Scott Malin.  H.E.M. works for all grades of sprains and is also an effective treatment for the more serious high ankle sprain. The goal of the program is to break down scar tissue in the ankle resulting in increased flexibility.

This flexibility prevents stiffness which allows for shorter recovery time. Healthy blood flow allows healing immune cells to remove the waste and debris that collect in the ankle as a result of the sprain.  Elimination of swelling helps to remove scar tissue which causes stiffness and prevents full range of motion.  Mobility increases the strength and stability of the ankle and allows the injury to heal for a full recovery.

The H.E.M. program can be done in about 30 minutes from home and does not require any special equipment. For faster recovery it is recommended that you perform the three steps once or twice a day.

Anti-inflammatories can be used to reduce inflammation which can help relieve pain.  There are anti-inflammatory drugs as well as foods with anti-inflammatory properties.

The most common anti-inflammatory drugs are NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs). These include ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin.  Some doctors believe that NSAIDs increase swelling by increasing the potential for bleeding.

If this is a concern or if you cannot tolerate NSAIDs, it is recommended that you take acetaminophen to control the pain. In most cases prescription drugs are not required for a sprained ankle.

Foods with anti-inflammatory properties include turmeric, olive oil, fish oil, and onions. Try incorporating these foods in your diet for natural relief from the pain and swelling.

Epsom salts, also known technically as crystals of magnesium sulfate, can be therapeutic for soaking a sprained ankle.  Epsom salts help to relax the nerves in the injured area, acting as a topical analgesic.

Medical Treatments

If you choose to seek medical treatment for a sprained ankle, one of the options you may be offered is laser treatment.  Laser therapy helps to increase blood flow which brings in nutrients needed to repair the damaged ligaments.

It also increases lymphatic flow to reduce swelling, expediting the body’s natural healing process. Mild sprains show improvement with laser therapy after an average of 3 to 5 treatments.

In recent years, Kinesio taping has become a popular treatment offered by doctors and physical therapists to help heal sprains. Kinesio tape is an elastic, adhesive tape that is specifically applied to a sprained ankle to re-educate the neuromuscular system, reduce inflammation, prevent injury, and promote good circulation.  As your ankle heals, scar tissue builds up around the injury.

Kinesio tape helps to maintain proper function and movement so that scar tissue will form in a pattern similar to the original tissue, minimizing long term mobility issues.  The benefit of this therapy is that it still allows for range of motion while stabilizing the joint to prevent further injury.

The goal of physical therapy is to use hands on treatments and exercise to help heal the injured ankle and prevent further injuries.  Physical therapy includes range of motion exercises, muscle strengthening exercises, body awareness, balance training, functional training, and activity specific training.

This combination of exercises and training will allow you to gradually and safely return to your activities without causing further injury. Physical therapy sometimes offers alternate treatments such as electrical stimulation and massage therapy which can help flush out the excess tissue fluids that cause swelling and pain.

Another option is joint mobilization to improve joint motion. This treatment restores the natural gliding motion between the ankle bones to help speed healing and improve function.

In extreme cases, medical treatments can sometimes include arthroscopy or reconstruction.  During an arthroscopy, a surgeon examines the ankle joint for loose fragments of bone or cartilage.  If you require reconstruction surgery, a surgeon will repair the torn ligament with stitches.

In reconstruction, it may be necessary to use other ligaments around the foot or ankle to repair the damaged ligaments. After surgery it is likely that you will need to see a physical therapist to help with recovery.  Rehabilitation after surgery can be a slow process and you should expect to visit a physical therapist for two to three months. Full recovery can take up to six months.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitating a sprained ankle involves a structured exercise program dependent on the type of sprain.

For a Grade 1 sprain, you can begin gentle mobility exercises between days 3-7.  The recommended exercises are plantar flexion and dorsi-flexion.  After day 7, you can begin more advanced functional exercise including jogging and hopping.  If this does not irritate the injury, move on to twisting and turning exercises.

For a Grade 2 sprain, you should wait until day 8 to begin gentle flexion exercises. At day 22 you can advance to strengthening exercises as well as hopping and jumping.  When hopping and jumping are comfortable, progress to twisting and turning exercises to continue to build ankle strength.

A Grade 3 injury requires a longer healing time before beginning a rehabilitation program.  Because of the severity of this type of injury, it is strongly recommended that you seek medical advice before beginning a rehabilitation program.  You should not attempt any type of exercise for the first two weeks after the injury.  Rehabilitation for a grade three sprain could take from 8 to 12 weeks.

Stretching Your Ankle After a Sprain

The goal of stretching your ankle after a sprain is to improve the range of motion.  You should not start a stretching program until the pain and swelling have been reduced and you can bear weight on the injured joint.  For a minor sprain, this is typically about one week after the injury occurred.

All the exercises below are to be held for a count of 10 and repeated 10 times.

The first four exercises you can do while seated:

  1. Extend your leg and flex your foot as much as you can without discomfort. You should feel a gentle stretch in your calf.
  2. Extend your leg and point your toes downward.
  3. Raise your foot off the floor and bend your foot to the left.
  4. Raise your foot off the floor and bend your foot to the right.

The next two exercises are done from a standing position:

  1. Stand with your toes on the edge of a step and your heels hanging off the step. You will feel a strong stretch in your calf muscles.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and squat back and down like you’re sitting in a chair.

Strengthening Your Ankle After a Sprain

After an ankle injury it is crucial that you begin a strength training program to rebuild the muscles that may have weakened during your recovery period.  Weakened muscles can cause imbalances and stability issues which can increase your chance of future injuries.

Balance training is an important part of strengthening your ankle. Balance exercises will not only help strengthen your ankle, but will improve your agility and core strength. Some balance exercises to begin with:

  • Stand on one leg – hold for 30 seconds then switch legs, work up to one minute per leg. For an extra challenge try this with your eyes closed.
  • Balance and catch – stand on one leg, catch and throw a ball with a partner. Be sure to throw the ball in different directions and at different heights. Perform 3 sets of 30.
  • One leg mini squats – on one leg do a half squat with the opposite leg out front for 10 reps. Then move the opposite leg to the front for 10 reps.  Finish with the opposite leg behind you for 10 reps. Switch legs and repeat.

The second way to strengthen the ankle is to use an exercise band or a towel for resistance while doing seated ankle exercises.  When performing the exercises, place the center of the band or towel around your foot and hold the ends in your hand to create tension on your foot and ankle. Perform these exercises from a seated position for three sets of 20:

  • Extend your leg and point your toes downward. Pull the band towards you to create tension.
  • Raise your foot off the floor and bend your foot to the left. Pull the band to the right to create tension.
  • Raise your foot off the floor and bend your foot to the right. Pull the band to the left to create tension.
  • If you have someone else to hold the ends of the band, use the band to create tension across the top of your foot while flexing the foot.

The final step in strengthening your ankle is with plyometric workouts.  Plyometric training uses dynamic moves in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals to increase power.

This allows the muscles to contract faster which helps to prevent falling or twisting an ankle.  Over time, plyometric training increases the amount of force you can produce which leads to increased muscle strength and improved sports performance.

To start, perform these exercises 10 times each and work your way up to 15 reps.

  • Scissor Hops – Begin with feet hip width apart. Jump and cross your right foot in front of your left. Land with your feet in the starting position. On the next jump cross your left foot in front of your right.  Alternate feet each jump.
  • Scissor Lunges – Begin with feet in a lunge position, one leg in front of the other. Jump and switch feet mid-air landing with the opposite foot forward.
  • Standing Squat Jumps – Begin in a seated squat position with feet hip width apart. Jump up and land in starting position.
  • Single Leg Spot Jumps – Standing on one leg, lift the other leg and hop to a spot on the floor, landing with the opposite leg in the air. Switch legs each rep.

Preventing a Sprained Ankle

Once your sprained ankle has fully healed you will want to take precautions to prevent any future injuries.  The first step is to continue with the exercises that were part of your recovery and rehabilitation.

H.E.M. includes a Prehab program that is designed to help strengthen weak ankles. The goal of H.E.M. Prehab is to increase your ankle strength, stability and range of motion to prevent injury and eliminate the need to wear braces, wraps or tape.

Make sure you warm up properly before exercising or playing sports.  A simple warm up is brisk walking for 5 to 10 minutes.  Be aware of your surroundings and avoid walking or running on uneven surfaces.  Wear shoes that are properly fitted and appropriate for your activity.

Be sure to adequately prepare for any new athletic activities you plan to participate in.  This means gradually building up your activity level and knowing your limitations.

Extra precautions to prevent a sprained ankle include taping and bracing.  Taping and bracing provide support to ligaments that may have suffered permanent stretching. Research shows that both of these methods work well.

As you strengthen your ankles you will see an increase in your speed, agility and balance and a decrease in injuries.  Keeping your ankles strong and flexible is the best way to prevent injuries.

Our Top Pick For Sprained Ankle Treatment

Heal old or new ankle injuries fast!

Learn More