How to heal a sprained ankle and prevent ankle injuries

Sprained ankles are very common, but healing an injury to your ankle ligaments requires rest and proper treatment. About 28,000 ankle injuries happen every day in the United States – caused by anything from sports to intense fitness walking to taking a bad step. While you may want to get right back to burning calories and losing weight, take the time to properly rehabilitate your ankle. You may be at increased risk of reinjury to your ankle for a year or more.

We’ll cover how to help heal a sprained ankle, what you can do to prevent ankle injuries from occurring, and whether you can just “walk it off.”

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Note: If you’ve suffered an ankle injury, make sure to see a doctor or medical professional to get checked out. It’s always better to be safe, just in case!

What is a Sprained Ankle?

Man checking injured ankle during a park walk
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An ankle sprain occurs when the ligaments in your ankle are damaged – usually by twisting or turning your ankle. Ligaments are tissues that hold your ankle joint and bones in place. Almost everyone has probably twisted their ankle at one point or another. If you did, you technically sprained your ankle.

What most people consider a “sprained ankle” is when your ankle becomes swollen or painful after an injury. A sprained ankle often results from a rapid shifting movement that causes you to stretch or possibly tear your ankle ligaments. This typically happens when your ankle turns in (towards your other foot), but it can happen in other ways as well.

Sprained ankles can range from mild to severe depending on how badly the ligaments were injured or torn. Your symptoms, as well as how you’ll need to treat and heal your sprained ankle, depend on the severity of the injury.

  • Mild Sprain: Your ankle may feel slightly tender and stiff, while also being swollen. However, your ankle will usually feel stable, and you will be able to walk on it with little pain
  • Severe Sprain: Your ankle will feel tender and maybe bruised. Often the ankle will feel unstable and “wobbly” and will give out if you try walking on it. Putting any weight on it will be considered challenging and painful.

It’s always a good idea to see a doctor after a bad or painful ankle sprain. Severe sprains can lead to torn ligaments, or even broken bones in your ankle. These injuries may not fully heal on their own and in some cases may require surgery, but only your doctor can tell you for sure.

Recovering after a Sprained Ankle Injury

Woman sitting down holding injured ankle
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How you can help it heal

For milder sprains, a simple protocol of R.I.C.E. can help your ankle heal after a few days. R.I.C.E. stands for:

  • Rest. Give yourself a day or two to sit and rest your ankle. Do not underestimate the importance of rest – it’s probably more important than all of the other 3 combined. Your body can heal many injuries on its own, but repeated stress and wear on an injured ankle will delay or hinder your healing.
  • Ice. Apply ice for at least the first 24 to 72 hours (10-20 minutes at a time, every hour or two during the day) or until the swelling goes down.
  • Compression: Investing in an elastic compression wrap can help with the swelling, especially if you wear the compression for the first 24 to 36 hours after the injury. It is important to note that these compression wraps do not provide protection, so you may also need to purchase a brace to help protect your ankle when you walk. Be careful not to wrap your ankle too tightly if it’s swelling, as this can be painful.
  • Elevation: Lifting your ankle above the level of your heart will help by reducing bruising and swelling. Aim to elevate it for 2-3 hours a day, if possible.

If you can only remember one of these 4 principles, make it rest! If the R.I.C.E technique is not working, or you have a more severe sprain, then you may want to consult your doctor for further option plans. Often doctors may recommend physical therapy, ankle braces or tape, or even surgery to help correct the issue.

Dealing With Sprained Ankles – Can I “Walk it Off?”

Man with knee pain after walking
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One of the reasons fitness walking is such a fantastic workout is because of its low impact on the joints and bones. Not only is walking great for any fitness level, but it’s one of the few activities that can be performed after some physical injuries.

If you’ve sprained your ankle and every step is painful, however, trying to walk through the pain is generally a very bad idea. This doesn’t mean that you should never get active and keep your ankle completely stiff. But you do need to take time to properly rest and rehabilitate your ankle.

Do Everything You Can to Prevent Re-injuring Your Ankle

Studies have shown that people who suffer one ankle injury are at greater risk of injuring their ankle again. This Cleveland Clinic study showed that people who injured their ankle and then reinjured it were at risk of chronic pain or serious injury. Various ways to protect your ankles, such as ankle tape and strengthening exercises were able to help reduce the risk of reinjury.

Start Your Recovery

Women stretching before a daily park fitness walk
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Slowly getting back into activities such as walking, as soon as you’re able can enhance joint mobility and help recovery.

  • Start Slow: The best plan of action after a mild ankle sprain is to apply the R.I.C.E. technique for a day or two and then try some light walking exercises.
    • Exercise to Try: Start off with a 10-20 minute walk at a slower pace and evaluate how you feel. Gradually increase the distance and time as you start to get stronger. You may not feel pain in your ankle until after your walk (sometimes even the next day), so only increase your distance slowly and over time.
  • Get Strength Back: As the pain minimizes and you can put more weight on it, incorporating simple exercises can help strengthen the supporting structure around your ankle and get you back into your walking routine in no time.
    • Exercise to Try: Begin by pushing your foot down against an object, hold this pose for 10 seconds. Repeat this exercise, but this time pushing up against an object.
    • Note: It’s especially important to get a doctor or physical therapist to suggest and demonstrate stretching and strengthening exercises. Doing these wrong can lead to further injury!

How Long am I at Risk for Further Injury?

Up to a year (or more) for serious cases.

The Cleveland Clinic Study found that people who suffered serious ankle sprains were at an especially high risk of reinjury during the first year after your sprain. If you suffered a very mild strain that you don’t even feel the next day, you’ll likely recover much faster.

It’s extremely important to prevent a series of ankle injuries, as each may be worse than the last and can lead to lasting damage to your ankles. When in doubt, be safe!

Reduce your Chances of a Sprained Ankle

Man grimacing due to foot pain
aleks333 / Shutterstock

Anyone can get an ankle sprain, whether through a sporting or exercise injury or just bad luck. However, applying some simple suggestions into your daily routine can help you minimize this risk and keep your ankles healthy and pain-free.

  1. Good Balance, Strength, and Flexibility can Help Prevent Ankle Sprains. 
    • Make sure to warm up and stretch before and after your workouts.
    • Incorporate exercises that will help strengthen the muscles around your ankle like pushing your foot down or against an object.
    • Start incorporating exercises that help with your balance, like standing on one foot on different types of surfaces or exercises like yoga.
  2. Choose Shoes Specific to your Activity and your Foot
    • Shoes that are meant for fitness walking will help prevent injuries because of their proper ankle support and cushion.
    • Replace these shoes for a new pair when the heels or the tread wears down.
    • You can often find shoes with additional ankle support specifically for people with ankle issues.
  3. Avoid Walking on Uneven or Slippery Surfaces.
    1. Try to walk on level ground that is free of obstacles. Choose a surface with more grip like a running track, and watch out for rain, ice, and leaves.
    2. Indoor walking areas are usually obstacle-free, but polished floors can be very slippery. If you’re an indoor walker, pay close attention to the floors. Having a go-to walking route that you’re familiar with can help avoid slips.
    3. Rocky terrain, hills with loose gravel, or even pavement with holes can spell disaster for ankles and other body parts. One of the major ways you may injure your ankle during fitness walking is rolling your ankle over an obstacle or slipping on a wet floor. Try to avoid these surfaces when you’re dealing with an ankle injury.

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Sources:

Ankle Sprain. (N.D.). Michigan Medicine. The University of Michigan. 

After a Sprain, Don’t Walk It Off. (2013). By Jane Brody. The New York Times. 

Exercise After an Ankle Sprain. (N.D.). Plancher Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine

Tips for Preventing Foot and Ankle Injuries. (N.D.). U.C.S.F. Health. 

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