Ankle sprains are some of the most common injuries that affect athletes. A sprain is caused by injury to a ligament, or a band of tissue that connects a bone to a bone. (A strain doesn’t happen to a ligament—it happens to a muscle or a tendon, a piece of tissue that connects a muscle to a bone.) Ligaments in the ankle help to keep the joint stable, so a sprain can be a serious issue, especially in an athlete.
Ankle sprains are usually caused by a sudden twist or roll of the joint while an athlete’s weight is on it, causing a stretch or tear of the ligaments. 90% of ankle sprains are caused by an inward and downward movement of the foot, injuring the ligaments on the outside of the ankle.
Many athletes describe a loud “snap” or “pop” or “crack” when they twist their ankle, and pain follows immediately. Swelling and bruising can develop very quickly, and the athlete may have difficulty walking. If this is the case, an x-ray may be necessary to determine if there may be a fractured bone.
Most ankle sprains can be treated with ice, anti-inflammatory medicines, and a wrap, brace, or walking boot. Crutches may be necessary for the first few days. As soon as he or she can, an athlete should start a rehabilitation program, concentrating on moving the joint, strengthening the muscles around the joint, and eventually balance training. Functional, sport specific training is helpful to get the player back on the field. Often, working with a physical therapist can help quicken return to play. However, returning too early can put an athlete at risk of reinjury and more lost playing time. The athlete should never just rest and wait for the ankle to heal without working on strengthening, because a “weak” ankle is more likely to have problems down the line.
An athlete who has had an ankle sprain is more likely to injure it again, especially within the next 6-12 months. Continuing the rehabilitation exercises is one of the best ways to avoid problems, as is wearing a good ankle brace with sports.
Thankfully, most ankle sprains are healed within about four weeks. If an athlete is still struggling after that period of time with good rest and rehabilitation, it may indicate there is another problem, like a cartilage injury or an unstable joint.