Symptoms, Treatment, & Recovery of a Broken Ankle
A fractured or broken ankle is a partial or complete break of one or more bones in the ankle.
People most commonly break an ankle when doing physical activities like running and jumping. The impact from falling or tripping also can cause you to break your ankle. Car accidents are another common cause of fractured or broken bones.
Although the severity may vary, broken ankle injuries are highly treatable for most people.
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Symptoms of a Broken Ankle
If you believe your ankle is sprained, strained, or fractured, you should have it examined by a medical professional immediately. People often mistake an ankle fracture for a sprain or strain. A doctor can determine the exact cause of swelling, bruising, and pain.
Signs of a broken ankle include:
- Immediate pain after the injury.
- Swelling, bruising, and, in some cases, visible deformity.
- Difficulty walking, bearing weight, or wearing shoes.
- Pain or tenderness when moving the ankle.
“You should have your ankle evaluated if you are experiencing symptoms, especially if your symptoms do not improve with anti-inflammatory pain medications or rest, ice, compression, and elevation,” says Lauren Lewis, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in foot and ankle care.
During your appointment, the doctor will conduct a physical exam of your ankle and the surrounding area to pinpoint the injury. Your doctor may request an x-ray to see the injury more clearly or evaluate the severity.
Treatment for a Broken Ankle
Once diagnosed, your doctor will develop an individualized treatment plan specific to the injury and your needs. Your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic specialist or surgeon.
“Treatment for ankle fractures will depend on the type of fracture you sustained,” says Dr. Lewis. “Once we identify the type of fracture, either stable or unstable, we can determine the best course of action to get a patient back on their feet.”
Common types of broken ankles include:
Stable breaks, where the broken bones remain aligned with each other and are barely out of place, are usually treated without surgery.
“Ankle fractures that are stable are typically treated with immobilization in a fracture boot or a brace,” says Dr. Lewis. “Depending on the fracture, you may be able to put your full weight on the injured ankle, or you may be advised to limit your weightbearing for a period of time.”
Your doctor also may suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Physical therapy may be recommended to help you regain strength of the ankle.
Unstable fractures can occur when there are multiple breaks in the bones, the break extends into or above the ankle joint, or there is additional damage to the surrounding ligaments. They typically require surgery to restore the alignment of the ankle. Your doctor may use hardware like pins, screws, plates, or other implements to stabilize the area. Following surgery, your doctor will prescribe physical therapy to help you regain strength and stability.
NSAIDs can help reduce pain and swelling of a broken ankle.
Unstable ankle fractures are most common after a high impact injury but can also occur more frequently among older adults.
Broken Ankle Recovery Time
Recovery time for a broken ankle is different for every injury. It also may depend on other factors, such as:
- Level of activity you are returning to (daily life vs. elite athlete).
- Severity of the fracture.
- Extent of the surgery.
According to Dr. Lewis, fractures take approximately two months on average to fully heal, and patients should expect to experience some degree of persistent pain during this healing period. However, the pain from a broken ankle tends to gradually improve over the course of several weeks.
“Swelling and bruising will typically decrease during the first several weeks of the healing process, but there can be residual swelling about the ankle and foot that persists for months or longer,” says Dr. Lewis. “Ankle stiffness also is not uncommon and can make relearning how to put weight on your injured side uncomfortable and challenging.”
Most stable ankle fractures require you to avoid putting weight on your foot by using crutches and a boot or a cast. This typically lasts for four to six weeks before physical therapy begins.
Physical therapy often lasts about two months. After that point, most patients are able to walk around and resume their daily activities, but may not be able to resume full athletic activity.
With both stable and unstable ankle fractures, it typically takes a minimum of three to four months before a patient is able to return to low-impact athletic activities.
Unstable ankle fractures may take additional time to heal and, in some cases, may require surgery before patients can return to significant athletic activity.
“Ankle fractures can range from being a minor inconvenience to a life-changing injury,” says Dr. Lewis. “Seeing a foot and ankle specialist can help to ensure that you receive optimal care for your ankle injury.”
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
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