DEAR DOCTOR K: I recently sprained my ankle. I know I twisted it and that it hurts when I walk on it, but what exactly happened to my foot?
DEAR READER: Many people use the words “sprain” and “twist” interchangeably. Though you may sprain your ankle by twisting it, the words do not mean the same thing. A sprain is a tear of ligaments, which are the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones to one another at a joint.
A common ankle sprain is caused by an inversion injury. To get a sense of how this happens, sit down and place your right foot on the ground. Then move your knee outward (to the right). Feel how the weight no longer is on the sole of your foot? Instead, it’s on the outer side of your foot. If that happens when you’re standing, your ankle will suddenly turn and injure ligaments.
Sprains cause pain and swelling. Additional symptoms depend on the severity of the sprain:
• A mild sprain causes only microscopic tears in a ligament. These tiny tears can stretch the ligament and cause some pain, but they do not significantly affect the stability of the injured joint.
• With a moderate sprain, the injured ligament is partially torn, and there is mild to moderate joint instability.
• With a severe sprain, the ligament is either torn completely or pulled away from the place where it attaches to bone. There is significant joint instability.
How long a sprain lasts depends on many factors, including its location and severity. If you have a mild or moderate sprain, your doctor probably will recommend the RICE rule:
• Rest the joint.
• Ice the injured area soon after the injury to reduce swelling.
• Compress the swelling with an elastic bandage.
• Elevate the injured joint.
A temporary sling or a brace, along with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, can also help. As joint pain subsides, a rehabilitation program can help to strengthen the muscles around your injured joint, reducing your risk of reinjury.