TOP 10 ways to help heal a sprained ankle faster!
Does this look like a familiar picture? If yes, my sympathies! But have heart, I have some good advice for you.
As of this March, I sprained my left ankle…very badly…extremely badly…. for the SECOND time in my life.
The first time I sprained my ankle, it was a long and painful rehab. This time, it’s still painful, but I’m determined that the rehab won’t be as long. Now that I’m going through this AGAIN, I have some well-earned experience from the school of hard knocks on how to heal a sprained ankle much faster.
And, here it is…..!
1. When you don’t know, go PRO
If you have taken a bad fall or rolled your ankle, don’t think you can just “tough it out.” Sometimes it takes a few hours for the REAL pain to set in. An ankle sprain hurts in a much different way than an ankle fracture and in order to heal, you need to know what you’re dealing with. See a physician right away and get the 4-1-1 on what you’re dealing with. If it’s not a fracture, your doctor can refer you to a physiotherapist for further treatment to help repair any torn ligaments with ultra-sound, acupuncture and, eventually, exercises to strengthen your joint and retrain your proprioceptors (which prevent you from re-injuring yourself).
The morning after I fell and rolled my ankle and tore two ligaments badly, it took about three hours for the adrenaline and shock to wear off sufficiently for me to realize that I was in some serious pain. Once I realized I could barely walk, I wanted to rule out a fracture — apparently you can still walk around on either a fracture or a completely torn ligament. So I hobbled to the car and drove myself to the closest hospital. The wait time to see a doctor and confirm that I wasn’t dealing with a fracture was worth it AND, bonus, I quickly got three very important prescriptions:
- pain meds and anti-inflammatories,
- air cast and
- rehabilitation therapy with a physiotherapist
2. Take it easy
Resting after a soft tissue injury is critical. I know it’s frustrating to just sit around and wait for your ankle to heal, especially if you’re used to being active. But trying to exercise too soon can result in a longer recovery. When I was first injured, my doctor told me to stay off my foot for at least three days, with my foot elevated. After that, my physiotherapists didn’t allow me to do any sort of strengthening exercises until about three weeks into my rehab. As an example of what NOT to do… A friend of mine tried to rebuild her strength too soon by going for long walks on her newly injured ankle. In her case, working “through the pain” just ended up making the average six to eight week recovery into a long and painful six MONTHS!
3. Ice Advice
To ice or not to ice, this is the eternal question for me. I’ve been a fitness addict and extreme sports enthusiasist long enough to become familiar with all kinds of injuries. However, whether it’s an acute injury like an ankle sprain or the gradual onset of an overuse injury, I never seem to hear anything but conflicting theories on icing.
For the first 72 hours, at least, the advice I’ve received is consistent. And that is YES, use ice…for a duration of 20 minutes and then take a break until your skin regains sensation. But after the first three days? How often? When? Under what conditions?
Here’s what’s working for me. My physiotherapist told me to ice immediately following any type of treatment or rehab exercise (e.g. such as my joint mobilization exercises, massage to flush out the fluids, etc.) and then to ice at the end of the day if my ankle was swelling. Basically, any time your ankle starts to swell again, for whatever reason, return to the ice. It’s been nearly three weeks for me and I still need ice at the end of the day at home or at the office. I think I now have a collection of about 10 flexible ice packs in my freezer, ready to use at a moment’s notice.
4. Keep it up!
Especially for the first 72 hours you need to keep that ankle up and treat with elevation. That was the advice of my doctor, and I didn’t listen. I’m stubborn that way. Plus, I don’t know about you, but my life is BUSY. But, let me tell you, I suffered for it. My ankle swelled significantly and for entire WEEK, delaying the benetifts of my physiotherapy!
After that, I took the advice of my physio and my doctor and I made sure to keep my leg elevated up on pillows and above heart level whenever I was able to sit back and take it easy. My swelling went down considerably after that. By the way, you can also elevate you ankle when sleeping but take care to provide supports under your knees and near your hips to make sure you’re not creating pain in the rest of your body for the sake of elevating your ankle.
5. Socks that rock
I wore a compression bandage for the first night after I came home from the hospital with my torn ankle ligaments but found it difficult to apply ice through all the layers of support. So, I took all my compression bandages off and, lo and behold, my ankle started to swell considerably. I’ve since learned that compression is VERY importan. Once my physio gave me a thin but highly elastic compression stocking, I was in business! It REALLY took down the swelling. I could wear it all day to prevent further swelling when I was walking around. AND I could wear it when I was icing my ankle too! Sweet! Wish I knew about this from the beginning!
6. Go Club Meds
Depsite my life-long experiences with pain and injuries, I am not big into taking painkillers. In fact, I avoid them whenever I can. In my personal opinion, the side effects are not worth the benefits. However, for the first three days after my ankle sprain, my pain was intense and I took whatever the doctor ordered and as often as ordered. The point is not just to reduce pain but to reduce the swelling and anti-inflammatories DO help with that in the short-term.
7. Ahhh! Arnica!
AFTER the first three days on anti-inflammatories, I was starting to manage my pain and wanted to look for alternatives (but I kept my prescriptions on hand in case I needed them). I looked to joint health supplements and homeopathy for solutions to pain and swelling. Some of the most common supplements for joint strength are calcium-magnesium and vitamin E as well as MSM and glucosamine-condritin. A very common homeopathic solution for pain is Arnica. I have used this for years for all kinds of sports-related pain and I have been using Arnica, internally and as a topical cream, for pain and bruising related to my most recent sprain. A fter a week of using Arnica, I put away the anti-inflammatories. Just for the record, I’m not judging ANYONE who has suffered an injury and used their prescribed anti-inflammatories and then filled their repeat prescriptions because they felt they needed to manage their pain. Pain is highly individual and I’m just describing what worked for me.
8. Stretching and Strenghtening and Hot/Cold Therapy
For the first three weeks, the only exercises I did (on the advice of my physio) were toe flexes and points, otherwise known to physiotherapists as proprioceptor training for my ankle. I did this once a day, three to four sets, with 20 repetitions in each set. At the beginning, I did this with the accompaniment of hot and cold foot baths…that is, doing the actual exercises (flexing and pointing) in the hot bath (as hot as the average hot tub) and then following up by completely submersing my ankle for about two minutes in an ice-filled footbath between sets and at the end. The hot bath helps loosen up your joint to do the exercises and the cold bath helps bring down the swelling and any tension. Combined, they also help flush out the considerable bruising that always comes with torn ligaments.
After three weeks, my exercises have now moved from pure joint mobilization (keeping things flexible) to actual strengthening. I’m now doing the same exercises (pointing and flexing) but with resistance. I’m now holding the tension of my point or flex for 10 seconds with a light resistance band for 10 repetitions. Ending, as always, with a nice, comforting ice pack! At week three, I’m also throwing in a good but gentle calf stretch to ensure that my supporting muscles aren’t getting overly tense. Stay tuned in later blogs for further exercises!
9. I HEART my “AIRCAST”
For the first day or so, crutches were useful to me to avoid putting any pressure at all on my ankle when I wasn’t sitting medicated in a chair with my ankle elevated and packed in ice. After that, once I was able to put weight on my ankle without pain, both my doctor and my physio advised me to chuck the crutches and go for another form of support — the u-cast, also known as an “AIRCAST.” All I can say is, “Once you go AIRCAST, you won’t go back.” I love it that much!
Seriously, I can’t say how much I love this thing. I had an air-cast both times I tore ligaments in my ankle and it’s been the most useful tool in my recovery. An air-cast is a light-weight supportive and adjustable hard plastic brace filled with light fluffy air pillows (also adjustable). It allows just enough compression to help reduce some of the swelling, prevents you from rolling your ankle again while you’re most vulnerable and, most important, allows you to return to near-full mobility very quickly. The air-cast can and SHOULD continue to be used as you return to your previous levels of activity, when your ankle is still not 100% rehabilitated and you are still vulnerable to re-injury. My physio even advised me to wear my air-cast (with an elastic compression stocking) while I was sleeping to ensure that my ankle maintained a normal posture while I was at rest (and I didn’t turn it in a bad position overnight).
Google your local medical supply businesses to see where you can purchase this wondrous appliance. In Winnipeg, you can purchase an aircast at Diamond Athletic and Medical Supply (awesome store and awesome staff!).
10. Don’t go limp
Lastly, some common sense that might not be common. Another good point of advice from my physio was to avoid limping. Stay off your ankle if you have to limp. When you do walk, try your best to walk as you normally would, even if you have to go slow. You may be tempted to guard your injured ankle but my physiotherapist told me that you regain your mobility faster and heal better if you just walk slower and use your joint’s normal range of motion. It helps your ankle to re-learn the proper way to move (remember those “proprioceptors”?) and you’ll get back to former level of activity much faster. Limping is a “crutch” you don’t need if you can at all avoid it and it could lead to improper healing. It also creates stress on other joints and causes pain in other areas of your body that compensate when you limp…and you don’t need MORE pain right now.
DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a doctor OR a physiotherapist, NOR do I play either of these roles on TV. The above tips are what worked for me and with this particular injury and is based on the continued advice of the professionals I am consulting. Please seek the advice of a medical professional whenever you’re injured.