You’re taking a walk and suddenly step into a pothole, twisting your ankle. Chances are, you probably sprained it. (Before you make your own diagnosis, you’ll want to make sure your injury is a sprain and not something more serious.) The good news is that — in most cases — you can treat a sprained ankle at home. Here’s what the experts suggest.
What Is a Sprain?
A sprain is an injury to the ligaments that hold your joints in place. For example, your ankles and wrists are made up of many small bones that glide and move in almost all directions. The ligaments that hold these bones together make sure that the movements are smooth and their alignment is correct.
Tearing a ligament due to hyperextension of the joint leads to inflammation, pain, bruising, and the inability to use that joint. Usually, your doctor is able to diagnose a sprain by looking at the injury, asking you about your symptoms, or by doing an X-ray to rule out any broken bones. Sometimes, if your sprain is severe enough, your doctor might order an MRI to get a good look at the soft tissue that’s been damaged.
For a strain, the Mayo Clinic suggests the R.I.C.E. approach for the first two or three days of a sprain. R.I.C.E. stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevate.
Rest – Stay off the injury, don’t put weight on it and don’t force any activity. Trying to power your way through an exercise while you’re injured can further tear the ligament and cause more damage. If a ligament has fully ruptured and doesn’t heal, you could need surgery. So, take a few days off to just rest and relax.
Ice – To reduce inflammation and pain, use an ice pack on your injured body part or submerge it into a bucket or tub filled with ice slush for 15 – 20 minutes. Repeat this every three to 4 hours for the first few days. What else are you going to do while sitting around resting?
Compression – Wrap the injury to keep the swelling down. You can use an elastic bandage that your doctor’s office gave you or buy one at a local drug store*. Make sure not to wrap the bandage so tightly that you lose circulation; you still want blood to get to the injury since good circulation will help with recovery.
Elevate – Keep your injury elevated to prevent fluids from draining down and causing more swelling. If you’re lying down at night, keep your leg elevated above your heart. If you’re sitting around watching TV, prop up the injured limb.
While sprains are painful, they’re easily treated with an over-the-counter painkiller. Ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) are non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), meaning they can help reduce swelling and pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) helps with pain and is a good option if you can’t take NSAIDs for other health reasons.
For Full Recovery
Once you’re out of the initial stages of recovery, your doctor may suggest some physical therapy exercises to help regain full use of the joint. Depending on the severity of your sprain, you can do these exercises by yourself at home and just check in with a physical therapist once a month. Before resuming your regular activities, check with your doctor to make sure the injury has fully healed.
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