I’ve sprained my ankle – what should I do?

Edwin Walsh, MSK Case Manager at Bupa UK
24 December 2018

Ouch. You’ve sprained your ankle. It’s easily done and is a very common injury. Not only is it painful, but being out of action can be frustrating too. So what can you do to help maximise your recovery?

I see lots of people who have injured their ankle, wanting to know what they can and should do. For example: Should I apply ice to my ankle? Will medication help my injury? Is it best to rest? Is it likely to happen again? Here’s what the advice and evidence says.

Person on a skateboard

Should I put ice on my sprained ankle?

Putting ice on your ankle is one of the well-known ways to manage your injury. It’s part of what’s called the PRICE procedure:

An image describing the acronym PRICE

However, some experts have suggested that putting ice on your ankle and completely resting it might actually make it take longer to heal. Research has suggested that putting ice on your ankle may reduce the flow of blood to the area and have an impact on the natural tissue repair process.

But even if ice won’t help the swelling to go down, it can help to reduce your pain. So my advice would be to use ice, but only do so for short bursts – I’d recommend up to 10 minutes at a time. Don’t put ice directly onto your skin though. Make sure you wrap an ice pack or bag of frozen peas in a tea towel or similar material before putting it onto your skin.

Our graphic above shows the standard medical advice on the PRICE procedure, but it’s important to bear in mind that experts are undecided on how effective it is because the evidence isn’t certain. Experts recommend that PRICE should be used on an individual basis, weighing up the risks and benefits. Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist if you’re unsure.

What medicines can I take?

Over-the-counter painkillers can help to ease your ankle pain. Paracetamol is often recommended first. Ibuprofen (a type of anti-inflammatory) in tablet form may not be helpful to take in the first few days. It’s been shown to reduce some of the body’s natural healing properties and delay the healing process. Ibuprofen can also cause some problems with your tummy. You can try gels and creams though as soon as you’ve hurt your ankle to help with the pain – these don’t have any gastric (tummy) side-effects.

If your sprain is very painful, your doctor may prescribe you some stronger painkillers to take (this might be codeine to take alongside paracetamol).

Will I get another sprain?

Unfortunately once you’ve sprained your ankle, repeat sprains can happen all too often, even if you aren’t actively involved in doing a lot sport. But why does this happen? One of my University lecturers used to say that: “You don’t have weak ankles, you have stupid ankles!” What he meant was that strengthening the muscles around your ankle alone, is unlikely to stop you from injuring your ankle again. But retraining the damaged ligaments and tendons is also essential to learn how to control your ankle movement – this is also known as proprioception.

Doing exercises early on (if your sprain is mild) that focus on range of motion, strengthening the surrounding muscles, and restoring proprioceptive control have been shown to improve how well your ankle functions. Research from a long time ago (1999) showed that doing a balance and strength training program within the first week after an ankle sprain significantly reduced the re-injury rate after one year compared to a group that didn’t do the exercise program.

You want to make sure you cover all those areas at the right level –a physiotherapist is the best person to provide an exercise program like this for you.

What’s the best way to prevent spraining my ankle?

To reduce your chance of spraining your ankle, there are a number of things you can do. These include the following.

  • Before you exercise, it’s a good idea to perform some movements and activities that mimic what you’re going to be doing. This will help prepare your body for exercising.
  • Wear the right shoes and get new ones when they wear out.
  • Exercise sensibly; for example, don’t play sport if you’re very tired or already feeling in any pain.
  • Build up your strength and fitness overall through cardiovascular exercise, strength training and work on your flexibility.

If you have sprained your ankle and it’s severe and very painful, it’s best to see a doctor or other health professional to get the right advice. If it’s mild, you can often manage it at home, returning to your usual activities fairly soon.

For further information you can read more on our sprained ankle topic page.

Becoming unwell or developing an injury can be disruptive to our busy life; which is why our health insurance aims to help you get back on your feet sooner rather than later, so you can get back to doing the things you enjoy.

Edwin Walsh
Edwin Walsh, MSK Case Manager at Bupa UK

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