After taking a tumble, you immediately feel pain shooting from your ankle and realize it can’t bear your weight as well.
Bad news: You may have suffered an ankle sprain.
Learn more about what a sprained ankle is — and how to treat it.
What Is a Sprained Ankle?
A sprain is an injury to a ligament, which is the tissue connecting two or more joints. There are multiple ligaments in the ankle. When you sprain your ankle, you’ve stretched or torn one or more of these ligaments.
Many types of activities or accidents can cause an ankle sprain. All usually involve bending or twisting your ankle beyond its usual range of motion.
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What Is the Difference Between a Sprain and a Strain?
People often use the words “sprain” and “strain” interchangeably, but they mean different things.
A sprain is an injury to a ligament, the fibrous tissue that connects bones to each other in a joint. A sprained ankle can occur when you overstretch or tear the ligament that holds the bones of the ankle joint together. A sprained ankle is the most common type of sprain.
Sprains happen suddenly, often with a popping sensation. A sprained ankle can occur if you run or walk on an uneven surface. They also can happen if you play a sport in which you pivot or twist or make sudden movements. (Think basketball, tennis, or pickleball.)
A strain is an injury to a muscle or a tendon. A tendon is the tissue that connects muscle to the bone. A strained ankle can occur when you overstretch or tear a muscle or tendon that is part of the ankle joint.
Strains can come on suddenly, but they can also happen over time from repetitive stress. Common causes of ankle strain include running, repetitive jumping, and other high-impact activities. (Again, think basketball, plus high-intensity cardio workouts and any sport that requires a lot of jumping or running.)
Symptoms of a Sprained Ankle
If you’ve suffered a sudden injury to your ankle, you may wonder if you have a sprained ankle. The symptoms of an ankle sprain include:
- Inability to move the foot.
If you suspect you have a sprained ankle, seek medical attention. If you don’t have immediate access to a medical professional, you may need to wrap the injury yourself.
If you think you may have a sprained ankle, it’s important that you stabilize the ankle joint by wrapping it. This will help prevent further injury.
Ankle Sprain Treatment
A comprehensive home treatment for a mild sprained ankle is the RICE method. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
- Rest means no weight-bearing activities. Continued weight-bearing can delay healing, increase pain, or even cause further injury. Consider using crutches for the first few days.
- Ice can help reduce pain and swelling from a sprained ankle — especially during the first 48 hours. Try icing your ankle for 15 to 20 minutes every four hours while you’re awake. Just be sure to wrap any ice or ice block in a cloth or T-shirt so you don’t injure your skin.
- Compression can help reduce pain and swelling and stabilize the joint while it’s healing.
- Elevation means raising the affected area above the level of the heart. Try lying down with a pillow under your ankle or lying on the sofa with your foot on the armrest. Elevating your ankle will help drain away any fluids, reducing swelling.
In addition to the RICE method, you can also use ibuprofen or naproxen to help lessen inflammation, swelling, and pain. Just don’t use it for more than a week without talking to your doctor.
How to Wrap a Sprained Ankle
Properly wrapping a sprained ankle doesn’t just help stabilize the ligaments to prevent more injury. It can also help reduce swelling.
Here’s a quick summary of how to wrap a sprained ankle with an elastic bandage wrap:
- Begin your wrap several inches above the injured ankle.
- Start your wrap on the inside of the leg and make two wraps around the ankle for stability.
- Continue wrapping around the foot and ankle in a figure-eight pattern.
- Ensure you wrap the bandage above and below the joint.
- Use Velcro or a fastener at the end to stabilize your wrap.
Tips for Wrapping a Sprained Ankle
Before you start wrapping a sprained ankle, make sure you have the necessary supplies. You may want to ask someone to help you gather the supplies if you’re having trouble walking.
Here are the supplies you’ll need:
- Elastic bandage.
- Pre-wrap tape or locking tabs.
- Soap and water (to clean your ankle before wrapping).
Important steps to remember when wrapping an ankle sprain are:
- Make sure the wrap is taut. Though you don’t want to make the wrap uncomfortably tight, a wrap that’s too loose won’t give you the support you need.
- Make sure the wrap isn’t too taut. Signs that you’ve overtightened your wrap are numbness, tingling, increased pain, and swelling above or below the wrap.
- Wrap above and below the joint.
- Wrap in a figure-eight pattern, overlapping the bandage.
How to wrap a sprained ankle without a bandage
If an elastic bandage is unavailable, raise the ankle and ice the area with a slush bath or an ice pack wrapped in a cloth around the ankle. Do not let the ice touch your skin directly. Apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes four to eight times a day.
When Should You See a Doctor for a Sprained Ankle?
At times, a severe sprain can mask a broken ankle. If the pain and swelling do not improve after a few days of home treatment, you should see a doctor.
You can also see your doctor sooner if you’re feeling so much pain that you think you may have broken something. A doctor can order an x-ray to see if you’ve broken anything. They can also recommend physical therapy to help you as you heal.
If you’re an athlete who’s eager to get back in action ASAP, consider contacting a sports medicine professional. They can help you make a plan to get you back in the game as quickly and safely as possible.
How to Prevent a Sprained Ankle
In the future, you can avoid reinjuring your ankle by:
- Building up the time you engage in certain activities (like basketball, tennis, or pickleball) slowly. This will give your body time to adjust to the required movements. It will also help you build up the strength you need to minimize the risk of injury.
- Performing warmup exercises before any physical activity or sports practice.
- Taking frequent breaks — or limiting the time you spend in an activity — if you begin to feel tired or weak.
- Wearing the proper footwear for whatever activity you’re doing.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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