What you know about ankle sprains might be wrong

What you know about ankle sprains might be wrong

Since it’s winter, it might be a good time to know more about 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.

In fact, about 2 million acute ankle sprains occur each year.

“So, knowing that any of us can suffer this kind of injury from the slightest twist, 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 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.

Are you trying to find a doctor? Look here if you live in Illinois. Look here if you live in Wisconsin. 

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  1. As a HS & collegiate athlete from many moons ago that had chronic ankle sprain issues for about 15+ years (my entire 8 years of athletic experience and probably 5-10 years after that), the paradoxical thing I found was that, for me, rest and icing were helpful…but the most helpful thing to aid in a quicker recovery was to do this: Walk as normal as I could, as slowly as I needed to.

    In other words, don’t limp. This did a few things: First, it helped my ligaments and muscles get back into the correct range of motion remarkably fast. Second, it avoided compensating injuries to other parts of my body (back, other ankle, hips, etc.) because I didn’t overuse those joints/muscles trying to keep moving fast, but with bad form/range of motion. Doing this got me back on the field/track…or even just walking/jogging within days instead of weeks.

  2. As a physical therapist for AAH, I recommend starting Physical Therapy as soon as possible to elevate edema, improve ROM, strength , balance, proprioception and balance.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.