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Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
Columbia University Medical Center

Ankle Sprains And Strains

An ankle sprain, while not as severe as a broken ankle, is still a serious injury that needs immediate attention. A sprain occurs when your ankle ligaments stretch beyond their normal range. If the force is very strong, the ligaments can actually tear or your bone may break (fracture). The ankle may become unstable if the ligaments tear completely. Therefore, it is important to seek immediate care to make a correct diagnosis and avoid poor healing of these sensitive ligaments.

Causes and Symptoms

Ankle sprains can occur in many different ways. They happen when the ankle rolls over itself or twists under the foot, causing the ankle and tendon to snap or pop. Athletes who continually push their bodies to the limits are often at risk, as are people who have previously suffered accidents involving the lower extremities. Sometimes, simply walking on an uneven surface can put you at risk for an ankle sprain.

Ankle sprains can lead to limited mobility in the ankle and a significant amount of pain. A sprain is often characterized by pain and swelling, and sometimes the skin in the ankle area becomes discolored.

Even though ankle sprains may seem harmless and only mildly painful, if you are experiencing non-stop pain over a long period of time, if walking is becoming too painful for you, if the swelling is much more severe than initially anticipated, or if numbness and tingling is present, this may be signs that your sprain is actually a broken ankle. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek treatment immediately.

Possible long-term complications of ankle sprains include recurring ankle sprains, imbalance, and muscle weakness. This can also happen if you return to regular activities without allowing the ankle to completely heal.


In most cases, ankle sprains are not severe enough to require surgery. Nonsurgical treatment for an ankle sprain includes applying ice packs to reduce swelling, remaining off your feet to reduce pressure, and elevating your feet above your head to reduce inflammation. Often, an ACE bandage and over the counter pain relievers are enough to relieve symptoms, but it is still important to remember to stay off the ankle for some time to avoid aggravating the injury. Rehabilitation and bracing may also be recommended to help to decrease pain and swelling and to prevent chronic ankle problems.

Surgical treatment, in the form of ankle arthroscopy or tendon repair, is reserved for injuries that do not to respond to conservative treatment and rehabilitation. A sprain that causes a tear in the ligament or damage to the muscles may be severe enough to warrant surgery and keep you off your feet for a prolonged period of time. Post-surgery physical therapy is often required in order to completely rehab the ankle. Your physical therapy program will be monitored by your podiatrist.

It is important to follow the treatment plan given to you by your podiatrist so that the ankle heals properly. You may have repeat sprains if the ligaments have not had a chance to heal completely. If the sprain recurs often and pain continues for an extended period of time, you may develop a chronic ankle sprain, which may lead to ankle instability.

Preventing Ankle Sprains 

Often times, preventative care is one of the best ways to avoid ankle sprains. Wearing properly fitted shoes that provide both ankle and arch support will help, as well as stretching before any kind of physical activity, including sports, weight training, and even jogging. 

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nyp logo white
an affiliate of:
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
Columbia University Medical Center