What you know about ankle sprains might be wrong
As the Milwaukee Bucks surged their way into the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference Championship round for the first time since 2001, one question weighed heavily on the minds of Bucks fans: Would star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ankles hold up?
Antetokounmpo’s well-documented history of sprained ankles has some fans biting their nails in fear that his next sprain will come at an inopportune time. And the fear has led to a little misinformed speculation on social media about the highs and lows of ankle sprains.
“There really is a tremendous amount of misunderstanding out there regarding sprains,” says Dr. Matthew P. Wichman, an orthopedic surgeon for Aurora Health Care based in Milwaukee, Wis. “One of those things is the definition of a sprain. People think it’s just an unnatural stretching of a muscle. That’s actually a strain. A sprain is a partial tearing of muscle fiber or ligaments. It matters because they’re treated differently.”
Other common misconceptions with ankle sprains are that they’re worse than bone breaks and that bad bruising means a worse injury.
“It’s tricky,” Dr. Wichman says. “A bone will predictably heal if it’s aligned properly and stabilized in a cast. A sprain? It can heal in a few days or linger for months or years as a chronic issue. The same goes for bruising and swelling. I’ve seen deep bruising and extreme swelling, and healing occurred over days. And I’ve seen minor swelling and bruising that took months to heal.”
Additionally, Dr. Wichman hears and sees lots of wrong social chatter about who suffers sprains and who isn’t at risk. The assumption, he says, is that only athletes and similarly active people are at risk.
“The fact is, you can sprain your ankle stepping off a curb or walking slowly down a sidewalk,” he says.
Indeed, the International Ankle Consortium reported in 2016 that while 45 percent of all athletic injuries are ankle sprains, nearly 30,000 people sprain ankles in the U.S. every day. All of those can’t be athletes. And more than half of those sprain sufferers never seek treatment.
“So, knowing that any of us can suffer this kind of injury from the slightest twist, and that not just the ‘Giannis’ of the world suffer them, our focus should be on appropriate treatment and healing,” Wichman says.
His best advice is to ignore how a sprain looks and treat it for how it feels.
“There are technologies that only elite athletes used to have access to but that are available to average patients now – stem cell injections, for example, to, hopefully, speed the healing process,” Dr. Wichman says. “But often, the best care is the simplest, most traditional care.”
That traditional care?
- Rest and put as little pressure and weight as possible on a sprained ankle.
- While resting, keep the sprained ankle elevated to relieve pressure and more quickly relieve swelling.
- Apply ice to the swollen joint to reduce swelling, and, if necessary, heat to help with range of motion.
- Take appropriate anti-inflammatory medication as needed or prescribed by a doctor.
And what about ankle braces or ace wraps to keep a sprained ankle immobile?
“Don’t do that! Immobilization leads to atrophy. While you’re resting, very gently work on moving your ankle around to maintain and restore your range of motion,” Dr. Wichman says. “I promise you, when he gets a sprain, Giannis is not sitting around with his ankle tightly wound. He’ll be well taped during a game. But when it’s time to heal, his trainers are making sure he keeps it moving. Literally.”
About the Author
James Burnett is a public affairs manager for Advocate Aurora Health. He has been a public and media relations director for a global agency and a large public charity, and previously was a journalist in Milwaukee, Wis., Miami, Fla., and Boston, Mass.