Swelling is a common symptom following an ankle injury. The resulting pain and function can be frustrating as you try to heal. Keep reading to learn how to reduce swelling in a sprained ankle.
Swelling and bruising around the ankle joint is a normal part of the injury recovery process. When tissues are damaged, the body initiates a cascade of events that help the ankle get into healing mode. This cascade involves dilation of local blood vessels to increase circulation and bring in more cells for healing (ultimately causing swelling).
You have probably realized by now that swelling is a normal, even good, part of the recovery process. However, swelling can also cause pain and altered function if it is excessive or goes on for too long.
The severity of an ankle sprain is split into three grades: 1, 2 or 3. The simplest way to describe each level of sprain is mild, moderate, and severe. These descriptive words typically correlate directly to the amount of pain and swelling that you experience with each grade. (For example, a grade 1 sprain has mild pain and swelling.)
For a full review of sprain grades, see the Ankle Sprain Overview
The best place to start with the management of a sprained ankle is to follow RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If it’s not enough for the pain and swelling, anti-inflammatory medication can also be used to boost your initial recovery.
Giving the injured tissues a period of rest will allow them to properly heal. This can range from a few hours to several weeks depending on the severity. Keep in mind that you only need to rest the affected areas until you can tolerate an exercise recovery program (focusing on ankle range of motion and strengthening exercises). Until you’re ready, don’t forget to keep moving the rest of the body to optimize healing.
To combat pain and swelling, especially in the first few days of an injury, ice is a great cost-efficient option. Apply an ice pack directly to the injured, painful, swollen area for about 15 minutes, or until the area has become numb. Repeat several times throughout the day for maximum benefit.
Using an ankle brace or wrap provides both pain relief and swelling management. It can also help you gain confidence in your ability to bear weight through your foot (when cleared by your doctor). It can be as simple as an elastic bandage or more specialized with an ankle brace.
Elevating your injured ankle is another way to easily manage the pain and swelling. In combination with compression and ice, it will maximize your comfort. Prop your foot and ankle up into a position that puts it at or above the level of your heart.
Anti-inflammatory medications, or NSAIDs, include aspirin, Aleve, ibuprofen, naproxen, and Advil. These easily accessible pills can help you better manage your pain and specifically address the swelling pathways in your body. When your pain and swelling are limiting your ability to cope with normal daily tasks or you are having trouble tolerating a progression in your recovery, NSAIDs can help. Be wary of the long term effects they can have on your internal organs, such as your kidneys. They should never be a long term solution for pain.
For more detail on each of these short term steps, see Sprained Ankle Treatment and Recovery
The ultimate swelling management option is actually within your own body: the muscles and lymph system. When you use the muscles around the injured area they help to literally pump fluid out of the lower leg and back into the heart for reabsorption. This prevents stagnancy and minimizes necessary swelling.
Initially, you may have to rest your ankle from all weight-bearing activity. As you start to do more, you may find there are certain activities that flare up your ankle pain and swelling. This may include high impact activities such as running or jumping, particularly on uneven or soft surfaces, such as sand, grass, or dirt. You may need to completely avoid these activities at first until your ankle has healed and you have taken the time to build better coordination. The goal is to avoid these activities until you can start to slowly reintroduce them.
Swelling can be exacerbated by poor diet choices that lead to bloating, body-wide inflammation, and electrolyte imbalances. Improving your diet for swelling management can start with excluding inflammatory foods, such as highly processed food (most things that come in a package), sugar, and white flour. You can also choose to add anti-inflammatory foods such as healthy fats (olive oil, fish, nuts, and seeds) and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Lastly, keep your electrolytes in balance by focusing on low sodium, more potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, spinach, sweet potatoes, and lentils.
When you are overweight, your entire has to work harder to maintain your health. This means the healing capabilities of your body are compromised. Additionally, the excessive body weight puts an extra burden on your ankle. Losing weight can boost your own healing capabilities and decrease overall strain on your joints. Start with small steps, such as diet (above), daily exercise, stress management, and more sleep.
Sometimes, there is just too much instability in the ankle, causing continued reinjury, pain and swelling. This is when surgery might be used as a last resort option. Ideally, surgery can restore stability to the overstretched ligaments and ankle joint. Be aware that chronic swelling can also be a sign of limited healing potential. Thus, if your body is having trouble healing, especially with a minimal injury, keep in mind that surgery may not be the best option.
The amount of swelling and how long it will last depends on many factors. These include severity, age, overall health, and how promptly treatment is initiated. In general, it will take about two weeks for a grade one sprain and up to six months for a grade three severe sprain.
If you don’t feel you are making the progress you expect in the healing process, you should talk to your doctor. They might order imaging, such as x-rays or an MRI, to rule out a more serious injury (such as a bone fracture). If you’re not sure where to start or how to progress, physical therapy is a great way to stay on track.
While swelling is an important factor in healing, it can be limiting and frustrating. Ultimately, find what treatment options work best for you that you can continue consistently. Typically, a treatment regime that involves more than one of these options will maximize the benefits of swelling management.
Feel confident in your ability to recover from your sprained ankle as quickly as possible with these simple steps. They will minimize downtime and let you get back to your normal life even sooner.
Next Pages:How to Wrap a Sprained Ankle
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