Ankle injuries are among the most common traumas we see and treat at our office. Probably about half of them are related to an athletic injury, but we see just as many from mundane, daily accidents like trips and falls off curbs or uneven surfaces.
The important thing to understand is that any ankle injury, from the mildest sprain to the most severe fracture, is worthy of prompt attention from an ankle specialist such as Dr. Dailey. While it’s true that more minor injuries may be treatable at home, carefully following an expert plan to completion helps ensure full healing and reduces your risk of long-term complications or re-injury.
Let’s talk more about the types of injuries we tend to see most commonly.
What Is an Ankle Sprain?
A sprain is an injury to one or more ligaments, which are the tough connective tissues that attach bones to other bones. (This is in contrast with tendons, which attach muscles to bones.)
There are several major ligaments that help protect the ankle joint and give it stability, any (or all) of which could be involved in a sprain. The severity of the injury can vary significantly, although ankle sprains tend to be categorized into one of three “grades”:
- Grade I involves minor stretching of the ligament, which produces mild pain and swelling.
- Grade II involves an incomplete tear of the ligament, which tends to be more painful (often with bruising), feel more “loose” or unstable, and may make walking very difficult or painful.
- Grade III involves a complete tear of a ligament, with severe pain, swelling, bruising, and instability.
What Is an Ankle Fracture?
An ankle fracture means that one or more bones that make up the ankle joint have broken. Most frequently, this occurs in the lateral malleolus region of the fibula/calf bone, which is the “knobby” part of the ankle on the outside of the foot. However, breaks along the inside bump (medial malleolus, which is part of the tibia/shinbone), or both, are also common.
Ankle fractures are often the result of high-force impacts, such as a fall from a great height or a car accident. However, severe twists or turning of the ankle—which tend to be more associated with sprains—can also cause ankle fractures if the force is severe enough.
How Can I Tell the Difference Between an Ankle Sprain and an Ankle Fracture?
It may not be easy to know, right away, whether your injury involves a fracture or “just” a severe sprain. Quite frequently, ankles can be both broken and sprained at the same time, making it even harder to tell without a professional evaluation.
Obvious signs that you’re probably dealing with a break include an audible crack during the injury, or an ankle that looks visibly misshapen. But not all ankle fractures cause the joint to become misaligned, so don’t rely on these signs alone.
More subtle differences include:
- Pain location. Breaks tend to hurt worst directly over bone, whereas sprains tend to hurt worst in the soft parts of your ankle.
- Numbness. If you start to notice numbness or tingling in the injury, a fracture is considered more likely.
All this being said, the simple fact of the matter is that if you even have to ask the question whether your ankle is sprained or broken, you have a problem that requires immediate professional attention.
What to Do After an Ankle Injury
First, if your foot or ankle is numb, cold, pale, misshapen, or unable to be moved, call 911. And even if you don’t need emergency care, you should still call us as soon as you can, so that we can evaluate your ankle.
In the meantime, begin RICE therapy:
- REST—Don’t put weight on the ankle, and don’t engage in activities that cause pain or discomfort.
- ICE—Use ice or an ice pack wrapped in a thin, clean cloth for up to 20 minutes at a time, up to once per hour. (Do not put ice directly on exposed skin.)
- COMPRESS—If you feel comfortable doing so, wrap the ankle with an elastic compression bandage or ankle brace.
- ELEVATE—Keep your feet above heart level as you sit or lie down.
We understand the urgency of ankle injuries, and will see you promptly—same day if possible.
Treating Ankle Injuries
As we mentioned in the opening, treatment protocols for ankle injuries vary significantly based on the type and severity of the injury. But whatever the protocols may be in your case, it’s critically important that you follow them closely. Even grade I sprains can “snowball” into chronic pain, instability, and re-injury if they aren’t treated correctly.
Our team at Freeland Foot & Ankle Clinic can help set you on the path to complete and lasting healing, as soon as possible. If we suspect there’s at least a chance that one or more bones have been broken, an X-ray may be required to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the damage.
From there, we’ll build you a comprehensive, customized treatment plan appropriate for your situation.
- Mild ankle sprains often resolve with home care strategies, including RICE therapy, over-the-counter medications, and a program of physical therapy to rehab the ankle once the damaged tissues have sufficiently healed.
- Moderate to severe ankle sprains, and almost all ankle fractures, typically require more substantial bracing, or even wearing a cast or walking boot, in order to protect and support the ankle as it heals.
- Surgery is usually not required, but may be necessary to repair a severely torn ligament that isn’t healing properly, or to realign broken bones and hold them in place as they heal.
Our office is also equipped with laser therapy, an advanced treatment that can help you better manage the pain of an ankle sprain, control inflammation, and even help soft tissues heal faster than they would otherwise.
In any case, the way you rehab the ankle after it has healed is just as important as the healing process itself. You will need to rebuild strength, balance, and range of motion in the joint to safeguard against future injury.
Don’t make the same mistake so many American make by underestimating an ankle injury! If you suspect a sprain, fracture, or any other problem, call us right away at (989) 695-6788.