Will A Sprained Ankle Heal On Its Own?

According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, an estimated 2 million ankle sprains happen each year in the U.S., and it is the most common musculoskeletal injury. If you've recently sprained your ankle, you'll understand how painful the experience is. Whether caused by a misstep or a trip down the stairs, a sprained ankle can take a toll on your physical well-being. You're suddenly unable to participate in activities you once enjoyed, and you now have to rely on others for help. This can be a challenging and even isolating experience. Knowing how your ankle is built and what happens when it sprains is the first step to understanding the healing process.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the ankle joint is made up of three bones: the tibia, fibula, and talus. These bones are connected by ligaments, tough bands of tissue that help to stabilize the joint. When you sprain your ankle, it means that one or more of the ligaments in your ankle joint have been stretched, twisted, or torn, per the Mayo Clinic. However, not all ankle sprains are the same. In fact, ankle sprains are often divided into three grades. In a Grade 1 ankle sprain, the ligament is stretched but not torn. In a grade 2 ankle sprain, the ligament is only partially torn, but it is completely torn in a grade 3 sprain (via the University of Connecticut Health). The severity of the sprain can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of the damage to the ligaments.

How long does it take for a sprained ankle to heal?

According to Harvard Health Publishing, the healing time for a sprained ankle can vary based on how severe the injury is. Some sprains heal quickly (within a few weeks), while more severe sprains can take several months to fully heal. For a grade 1 sprain, in which the ligaments did not tear, the recovery time is typically 1-3 weeks. For a grade 2 sprain, which involves partial tearing of the ligament, the recovery time is typically 3-6 weeks. The recovery time can be several months for a grade 3 sprain, which involves a complete ligament tear.

If the ankle sprain is severe, medical attention may be necessary, including physical therapy or even surgery in rare cases, per the Mayo Clinic. A sprained ankle is typically diagnosed through a physical examination — your doctor may check for the range of motion in the affected joint. They may also use imaging tests, such as X-rays or an MRI, to confirm the diagnosis and assess the severity of the injury. Your doctor may also use various tests, such as the anterior drawer test, to determine the specific type of sprain and the location of the injury, per Physiopedia

It's important to follow your doctor's treatment recommendations and avoid putting weight on the injured ankle until it fully recovers. With proper care and treatment, most sprained ankles will heal fully over time, and it is possible to return to normal activities without any long-term consequences.

How to take care of a sprained ankle

Caring for mild to moderate sprained ankles usually involves the RICE method, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation, explains Alberta Health Services. Resting the ankle allows the injured tissue to heal and prevents further damage, says Medical News Today. Activities that cause pain or discomfort should be avoided, and it may be necessary to use crutches or a brace to avoid putting weight on the affected ankle. The second step in the RICE method is applying ice to the affected area. Ice can help reduce pain and can be applied for 20 minutes at a time several times a day. It's important to use a barrier between the skin and the ice to avoid skin damage.

The third step in the RICE method is compression. Compression helps to reduce swelling and provides support to the affected joint. A bandage can be wrapped around the ankle to support and reduce swelling. It's important not to wrap the bandage too tightly, as this can interfere with circulation. Finally, elevation is the fourth step. Elevation helps to reduce swelling by promoting better blood flow. Keep the affected ankle above heart level for 2-3 hours daily.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can also be taken to help manage pain and inflammation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can effectively reduce pain and inflammation, per the Mayo Clinic.