Can a Sprained Ankle Get Worse?

can-a-sprained-ankle-get-worseBefore we can answer the question as to whether or not a sprained ankle can get worse, we need to understand what a sprain is.  An ankle sprain is caused when the foot is misplaced and twisted outside the normal range of motion.

This injury is common in sports such as soccer and football.  The twisting causes the ligaments that connect the foot and ankle to stretch and sometimes tear.  A mild sprain usually involves stretched ligaments, and causes tenderness, swelling, and stiffness.  A severe sprain occurs when the ligaments are torn causing extreme pain and the inability to bear weight.

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Untreated Sprains

It is estimated that over 20,000 ankle injuries occur every day in the United States.  Because this is such a common injury, it is often ignored as a minor inconvenience.  Unfortunately, ignoring a sprain will not make it go away; it can actually become more aggravated if left untreated.

Doctors warn that improper treatment of an ankle sprain can eventually lead to serious problems such as cysts, known as osteochondral lesions in the ankles.  These lesions require surgery to restore the cartilage.  Full recovery from this surgery can take up to fifteen months.

Treatments for Ankle Sprains

There are a variety of treatments available for sprained ankles. These include home remedies as well as medical treatments.

Two popular home remedies are RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and H.E.M. (healthy blood flow, eliminate swelling, mobility).  RICE is used immediately after the injury happens and for the next few days to encourage healing.  It reduces swelling and pain to help you heal faster.

Some experts argue that prolonged rest and ice are not beneficial for a sprain and can actually hinder recovery.  An alternative to RICE is the H.E.M. system.  While the goals of both systems are to reduce pain, and swelling in order to promote healing, H.E.M. does not use ice and discourages extended periods of resting the joint.  H.E.M. is made up of three steps:

  • Healthy blood flow increases rate of healing by bringing immune cells and nutrients into the injured area.
  • Elimination of swelling removes scar tissue and harmful waste from the injury.
  • Mobility increases the strength, stability and range of motion allowing for full recovery.

Medical options for treating a sprained ankle include laser therapy, Kinesio taping, physical therapy, and in extreme cases, surgery. 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. 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.

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.  Severe sprains may necessitate surgery such as 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.

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.

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.

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