Ankle sprains may well be one of the most common injuries that people unexpectedly sustain on a day-to-day basis, but that does not mean that having a sprained ankle is normal, or that it can just be ignored and left without the right care. Yes, when it comes to ankle sprains, failing to manage your injury properly can lead to a range of complications later down the track. A common one of these is called chronic ankle instability, where the supporting ankle ligaments remain in a weakened state that results in even less stability at the ankles throughout your day. This also means a higher chance of more ankle sprains, setting off a vicious cycle. So how can you avoid this, and what can you be doing at home to help your ankle recover from a sprain? Here’s five ankle sprain recovery tips from our physios.
1. Start With R.I.C.E.
It may be simple, but to this day, the RICE protocol still remains incredibly beneficial. Applying Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation is a well-established method for managing the initial stages of a sprained ankle, working to reduce pain and swelling while improving your comfort. It involves:
- Rest: give your ankle adequate time to heal by avoiding strenuous weight-bearing activities. Resting allows the damaged ligaments to start recovering without additional stress that may worsen the initial injury.
- Ice: apply ice through a towel or other covering (not directly on the skin) to the injured area for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours during the initial 48 hours after your sprain. Cold therapy helps minimise swelling and provides pain relief.
- Compression: wrapping your sprained ankle with a compression bandage (or compression tape) helps control swelling and importantly provides support and stability to your ankle. It means that when you are walking and using your ankle, the ankle stays more stable, there’s less risk of further injury, and pain will be better managed. Just make sure that your bandage or tape is snug, but not too tight to avoid restricting blood flow.
- Elevation: elevating the injured ankle above heart level whenever possible, especially during rest, will help reduce swelling by promoting proper fluid drainage from the injured area. This helps keep your pain under control, too.
2. Gradually Add Range-Of-Motion Exercises
As your initial swelling subsides, incorporating gentle range of motion (ROM) exercises is crucial for preventing stiffness and restoring normal joint function. Evidence suggests that early mobilisation can enhance recovery and reduce the risk of long-term complications. ROM exercises have a variety of benefits: they play a key role in preventing stiffness, as they stimulate blood flow to the injured area, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen for healing while reducing the risk of joint immobility. They contribute to the reduction of swelling by aiding in the natural drainage of lymphatic fluid from the injured site. This controlled motion promotes the removal of excess fluids and inflammatory byproducts, contributing to a decrease in swelling.
Controlled ankle movements also assist in the distribution of synovial fluid within the joint, acting as a lubricant to facilitate smoother motion and prevent stiffness. They can also help to prevent the formation of excessive scar tissue, promoting optimal healing and restoring the joint's flexibility. Try:
- Toe movements: while seated, gently move your toes up and down to encourage ankle flexibility without putting excessive strain on the injured ligaments.
- Ankle circles: rotate your ankle clockwise and counterclockwise to improve joint mobility. Start with small circles and gradually increase the range of motion as your ankle heals.
- Alphabet exercises: write the alphabet with your toes in the air to engage different ankle movements. This helps improve flexibility and strength in a controlled manner.
3. Add Strengthening Exercises When Ready
Ankle strengthening exercises are pivotal in supporting the recovery from an ankle sprain by targeting the muscles surrounding the joint and enhancing overall stability. These exercises play a crucial role in rebuilding strength in the affected area, promoting better support for the injured ligaments. As the muscles around the ankle become stronger, they provide increased stability to the joint, reducing the risk of reinjury and contributing to a more robust and resilient ankle.
Ankle strengthening exercises also contribute to the restoration of normal biomechanics and gait patterns. After an ankle sprain, individuals often develop compensatory movement patterns to avoid pain or discomfort. Targeted strengthening helps correct these compensations, ensuring that the muscles work together synergistically to support the joint properly. This not only aids in preventing future injuries but also promotes a more efficient and balanced recovery, allowing individuals to regain confidence in their ankle's strength and functionality. Try:
- Calf raises: gradually increase weight-bearing by performing calf raises on both feet. As strength improves, progress to single-leg calf raises for targeted ankle stability.
- Resistance band exercises: utilise resistance bands to perform dorsiflexion and plantarflexion exercises, targeting the muscles surrounding the ankle joint for improved strength and stability.
- Balance training: standing on one leg or using a balance board helps improve proprioception and strengthens the muscles that support the ankle, reducing the risk of recurrent sprains.
Note: the use of strength training appropriately should be monitored and prescribed by your physiotherapist, who can help you implement the right exercises at the right time so you can use strengthening exercises safely and effectively.
4. Slow, Steady and Consistent Wins The Race
The next piece of advice that everyone must know is that recovering from a sprained ankle does take time and care - and it’s not a race to have you recovering ASAP. A gradual recovery progression allows for increased comfort during the healing process, whereas rushing into activities or exercises too quickly can exacerbate your pain and swelling, impeding the body's natural recovery mechanisms. The slow and steady recovery approach also tends to yield better outcomes in terms of the overall healing process. Overzealous activities or premature weight-bearing can disrupt the natural tissue repair mechanisms, leading to setbacks and prolonged recovery times. Consistency in following recommended protocols, such as the R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) method and gradually introducing range of motion and strengthening exercises, promotes a structured healing environment.
In addition to physical benefits, a measured approach to managing a sprained ankle at home has psychological advantages. Consistency instils a sense of discipline and commitment to the recovery process, boosting motivation and mental resilience. Knowing that progress is being made gradually can also alleviate anxiety and fear associated with reinjury.
5. You’ll Always Recover Better With A Physiotherapist By Your Side
Seeing your physio when you’ve sprained your ankle means you’re always getting the best outcomes. Physiotherapists are trained to assess the specific needs and limitations of you personally, tailoring best-practice rehabilitation approaches to address your individual strengths and weaknesses. This personalised approach is crucial in optimising recovery outcomes, as they can identify any underlying issues that may otherwise hamper your recovery progress without you even knowing. Your physiotherapist will design a comprehensive treatment plan that not only targets the immediate concerns related to the ankle injury but also considers your overall physical condition, lifestyle, and long-term goals.
The expertise of a physiotherapist also extends beyond the treatment of symptoms - and to the identification of biomechanical imbalances and functional deficits that may have contributed to the sprain in the first place. Addressing these factors is essential for preventing future injuries and promoting sustained recovery. Physiotherapists employ evidence-based techniques and exercises, ensuring that the rehabilitation process is grounded in the latest research and best practices, leading to more effective and efficient results.
And don’t forget - your physio can also help you stay motivated and stick to your rehab plan. The road to recovery can be challenging and it's not uncommon to have setbacks, and having a knowledgeable professional to guide and encourage individuals can make a significant difference. Physiotherapists not only provide hands-on treatments but also educate patients on self-management strategies, empowering them to take an active role in their recovery. Your physio can also give you additional tips, like how to best manage your pain if you’re having trouble, performing hands-on care and manual therapies to support your recovery, and even giving helpful pointers on things like nutrition and hydration, which are both important for the body’s healing process.
Need help managing an existing or previous ankle sprain? Our physiotherapy team is here to help. Book an appointment by calling us on 2522 6972 or book online here.