Ankle injuries can be a very frustrating thing. While they are usually not the most serious of health problems, they can be extremely inconvenient. Without being able to simply put some weight on our foot, we suddenly find it very hard to get around, and our whole lives are disrupted. And if you play sports, the recovery time alone can destroy your ability to practice and set you back quite a bit. Unfortunately, ankle injuries are a fairly common occurrence, so here are a few things you should know.
Sprain vs. Strain
Although they are frequently used interchangeably, sprains and strains are not the same thing. A sprain is when a ligament, the fibrous tissue connecting two bones together, is overstretched or torn entirely. A strain is when the same thing happens to a muscle or tendon, the tissue that attaches muscle to bone. Sprains are a much more common form of ankle injury than strains, and the ankle is the most commonly sprained body part overall.
Ankle sprains are classed into one of three grades, depending on the severity of the injury. Any time a muscle is stretched and contracted, we create tiny tears in its microfibres. Ordinarily, these are insignificant, and our body repairs the tears faster than they appear. But if they tear suddenly, or too often, it can lead to a sprain.
A grade one sprain involves only a small amount of tearing, with the ankle feeling sore and slightly swollen. A grade two sprain involves more tearing, pain, and swelling, but the ligament is still partly intact. A grade two sprain will make it hard to put weight on your foot, and may also involve bruising. A grade three sprain is when the ligament is completely torn in two, leading to severe pain and instability.
Regardless of whether you have a strain or a sprain of any kind, you can always start caring for it immediately by using the RICE technique. This stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation, and will help ease pain and speed up the recovery process. Quite simply, it involves avoiding using your ankle for at least two days, during which time you want to ice the injury regularly.
Use an ice pack or ice wrapped in a towel on the ankle for 20 minutes, every 2 hours. Never apply ice directly to the skin, as this can cause damage. Keep the area compressed with a bandage, and elevate your foot above heart-level as often as possible, e.g. by lying down with your feet up.
There is a mistaken belief that the word “fracture” refers to a crack in a bone, when in reality a fracture is the same as a broken bone. When an ankle is broken, it can be either stable or unstable. A stable broken ankle is one where the bones have broken, but not moved out place. For these, your doctor will use a splint or cast to support the area. An unstable fracture requires surgery, where metal plates and screws will be used to put everything back in the right place. The bones should usually heal after 6 weeks, although this can vary depending on the extent of the damage and whether or not surgery was required.
Surgery is Rare
Despite the fact that ankle injuries are relatively common in the grand scheme of things, you won’t hear about ankle surgery too often. This is because, apart from the surgery for unstable fractures, there are very few reasons to operate in the area. Two of the most common ankle surgeries, joint replacements and joint fusions, And although surgery has been used to treat grade 3 sprains, recent research suggests it offers little to no benefit over non-surgical treatment methods.
Ankle injuries can be both incredibly painful, and incredibly inconvenient. While the types of issues you can experience in and around the ankles tends to be quite limited, most of these can still cause a lot of discomfort and make it difficult to move around. The good news is that ankle injuries tend to be a short enough ordeal, and can often be taken care of at home. You should visit a doctor if you experience severe or long-lasting pain, but in many cases, all you need is a rest, ice, compression, and elevation.