You're sitting there with a bag of ice on your ankle, waiting for the pain to ease, and you wonder: "How do ankle injuries happen? How long will I be out? What can I do to prevent this from happening again?"
Let's try to get to the bottom of these questions while you recover. First off, realize that the ankle is a marvel of anatomical structure, combining multiple bones, joints, tendons, and ligaments -- all contained within a tiny area. With the ankle's assistance, we walk, turn, jump, and balance, but doing any of those activities suddenly or too often may trigger ankle injuries.
Whether it's sports-related or the result of a simple trip or fall, ankles are vulnerable to strains, sprains, and fractures, so it pays to recognize the different common injuries and know how to deal with each.
Is It a Strain, Sprain, or Fracture?
Ankle injuries fall into three basic categories. A strain is a stretch or tear to a muscle or tendon. The pain is in the muscle and/or its tendons, leaving the area sore, tender, swollen, and possibly bruised. Usually, you'll feel the pain right away, but it can also be several hours before you feel it.
Sprains, meanwhile, are injuries in which a ligament that connects one bone to another has stretched or torn. A sprain will cause pain, and may cause swelling, bruising, and inflammation.
Fractures are easier to differentiate and generally more serious than your average strain or sprain: They involve a crack or break in the anklebone.
Treating an Ankle Strain or Sprain
Immediate treatment for a typical ankle strain or sprain involves four basic elements:
- Rest your ankle. Get off your feet as soon as possible.
- Use ice packs on the injury. Remove the ice after 20 minutes, or sooner if you feel the area becoming numb. Keep applying ice for a couple of days.
- Utilize compression. Wrap your ankle, to help reduce bruising and swelling.
- Elevate that ankle when you can. Sit or lie so that your ankle is at or above your heart. This position helps reduce swelling and bruising.
If the strain or sprain is bad enough, your physician may require you to wear a removable boot or cast to ensure that the muscles, tendons, or ligaments heal properly and in place. With luck, you can return to your favorite activity in a couple of weeks, but contact sports or those that involve running, jumping, and stopping may require a longer wait.
In the worst cases of a sprain, surgery may be required to repair the tear in the ligament. A fracture also often requires surgery to reattach the broken bone and fix it in place. After the incision has healed, a cast or boot will be required, and physical therapy is a typical part of the recovery process.
Ankle-injury prevention is typically twofold. You can strengthen your ankle by doing some simple exercises, such as ankle circles or heel and toe raises, but you'll also be wise to follow these ankle-protecting tips:
- Cut back on stilettos and flats. High heels create instability, increasing the risk of a trip, fall, or ankle twist, while flat shoes have no arch support, placing strain on your ankle.
- Balance high-impact sports with low-impact activity. Running, basketball, tennis, or soccer are all high-impact activities, but biking, swimming, and aquatic exercises are easy on your ankles.
- Watch your weight. The ability of our small, intricate ankles to support our bodies is pretty amazing, but the more weight you carry, the greater pressure your ankles feel, especially when you walk or turn quickly.
Respect your ankles, and treat them kindly by getting adequate rest when you feel pain. They'll return the favor by keeping you moving through life.