In the grand spectrum of medical ailments, an ankle sprain seems inconsequential--a minor injury that many people try to push through to get back up to full speed. But a new study suggests there may be long-term health repercussions.
Research from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, suggests that people who have ankle injuries such as sprains are more susceptible to arthritis in the ankle and pain throughout the body during their lifetime, as well as heart or respiratory problems. The study authors said more research is needed to explore the possible connections between ankle injuries and the heart and respiratory issues; the reasons behind them are unknown right now. But the findings about weakened ankle strength and joint problems, such as arthritis, underline the fact that a sprain needs proper medical attention and treatment.
"With an ankle sprain, one of the ligaments keeping the bones in place is torn or overstretched, so it's natural that if it doesn't heal correctly, it can cause problems down the road," says Steven Smith, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at St. Joseph Health Medical Group in Sonoma County. "And while proper treatment is necessary, people should avoid hurting their ankles in the first place by taking precautionary measures."
Dr. Smith offers the following ankle injury prevention and treatment tips:
Wear the right shoes. "Get shoes, especially tennis shoes, that are fitted properly," Dr. Smith says. "Aim for a comfortable, supportive fit--it can help cushion the blow from a fall or taking a wrong step, which are both common causes of sprains. Many athletic shoe stores offer personalized fitting services."
Stay on level ground. "When it comes to activities such as hiking, trail running or just walking, it's important for you to watch your step when on uneven terrain," Dr. Smith. "One wrong move and you can easily twist and sprain the ankle. If it's a rocky trail, for instance, keep an eye on the ground. And walkers or runners should build up hill climbs gradually."
Keep the ankles strong and limber. "It's simple to throw exercises into a workout routine that strengthen the ankle," says Dr. Smith, who recommends calf raises or leg stretches with a resistance band around the foot. "And stretch the legs before exercising so the muscles are warmed up--it's another way to guard against injury."
Seek medical attention. "If you do end up with a sprain, you should pay attention to any swelling, bruising, numbness or stiffness in the foot or ankle area," Dr. Smith says. "Those are signs--along with the inability to put weight on the foot--of injury. See a doctor, who can examine the foot and may want to get an X-ray or MRI to rule out a possible fracture or break."
Follow the RICE treatment plan. This acronym stands for the standard treatment in the immediate aftermath of a sprain:
Rest the foot for up to three days with a mild sprain, or longer if it's more severe;
Ice the ankle with an ice pack or ice bath, every two to four hours during the first few days for up to 20 minutes each time;
Compress, via wrapping the ankle in a bandage, to help prevent swelling and bruising;
Elevate the affected foot above heart level while resting it, which also helps with the swelling and bruising.
Don't rush the healing process. "It's hard to slow down because of an ankle injury, but a sprain needs time to heal properly," Dr. Smith says. "Use crutches if necessary, or a brace or splint if the ankle needs extra support. The doctor treating the sprain will recommend how long to avoid exercising, which will depend on the severity of the sprain. As tempting as it is to get back to normal routines as soon as possible, it's best to heed the doctor's recommendations."
Get some therapy. "Once the ankle is healed, ask your doctor about recommended physical therapy exercises to restore ankle strength and prevent future weakening of the joints," Dr. Smith says. "These can include stretches, balancing poses and strengthening moves.”
Steven Smith, MD, specializes in adult reconstructive surgery of the hip and knee, including partial knee, total knee, and total hip – anterior approach.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.