Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2012.
This factsheet is for people who have a sprained ankle, or who would like information about it.
A sprained ankle occurs when a ligament is excessively stretched, twisted or torn. A ligament is a tough, flexible, fibrous tissue that connects one bone to another to form a joint.
Sprained ankles are one of the most common musculoskeletal injuries. An estimated 5,000 people sprain one of their ankles each day in the UK.
Sprained ankles are classified into the following grades.
The symptoms associated with a sprained ankle include:
A sprained ankle can be very painful with the pain getting worse if you move your foot. Your ankle will start to swell immediately and will be tender to touch. Bruising will appear around the injury but this can take hours or even days to appear. If your sprain is severe, you may not be able to put any weight on your foot.
You may hear a popping or cracking sound at the time of injury. Although this can be alarming it isn’t usually a sign of the severity of your injury.
A sprained ankle is most commonly caused by your foot twisting inwards making the ligaments on the outside of your ankle stretch past their normal range. This is known as an inversion sprain.
A sprained ankle can be caused by:
You’re more likely to sprain your ankle if you have done so previously. This is possibly because the ligaments didn’t heal properly the first time so they are weaker. It may also be because you damaged nerves in your ankle previously and if not fully rehabilitated the muscles can remain weak.
Your GP or physiotherapist will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history and to describe exactly how you injured your ankle.
Your GP or physiotherapist will want to rule out a broken bone (fracture) and assess how severe your injury is. He or she may ask you to walk a few steps to see if you can put weight on your foot. This will help your GP decide the best treatment for you.
You may need an X-ray if your GP thinks your injury is severe and may need more specific treatment.
It’s important that you begin to treat your sprained ankle as soon as possible. This will speed up your return to activity and reduce the chance of it happening again.
In the first 48 to 72 hours after your injury, it’s important to follow the PRICE procedure. Many minor sprains and strains will respond well to this.
If your injury doesn’t improve, it’s important to seek advice from your GP or physiotherapist.
For the first 72 hours there are certain things you shouldn’t do. These can be remembered using HARM.
As soon as you feel that your pain is tolerable, begin gentle stretching exercises to keep your ankle moving and help decrease the pain and swelling.
Doing five repetitions of the following exercises, three to five times a day, can help you to get back the movement in your ankle in all directions.
Your GP or physiotherapist will probably give you exercises to do once you can stand without pain. These exercises will aim to strengthen the muscles around your ankle making a repeat injury less likely.
You can take paracetamol immediately to help relieve pain and swelling. Your GP may prescribe codeine if your pain is severe.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.
Physiotherapy can help restore your range of movement, strength and balance. This can be done with a number of techniques, such as:
Surgery for a sprained ankle is rare because there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that it’s more effective than physiotherapy and exercise. However, if your ankle is still causing you pain and giving way after you have tried all physiotherapy options, your GP may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon (a doctor who specialises in bone surgery) or a sports injury specialist.
The length of time it takes you to recover from a sprained ankle will depend on how severe your injury is.
If you don’t have any complications, you will probably be able to walk within one to two weeks and achieve full movement of your ankle within six to eight weeks.
See our FAQs for more information.
It’s impossible to totally remove the likelihood of spraining your ankle but there are a number of ways you can help prevent a sprained ankle. The most important thing you can do is to maintain the strength, flexibility and balance of the muscles surrounding your ankle. Some other examples are listed below.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Publication date: January 2012
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