What Is an Ankle Sprain, Exactly?
For most people, an ankle sprain is a “you know it when you feel it” type of injury. The pain is usually felt immediately, right after an unexpected fall, collision, roll, or twist in your ankle.
Under the surface, what’s happened is that one or more of the ligaments supporting your ankle joint has been stretched or torn. Ligaments are tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect bones together, so a stretched or torn ligament can not only be painful, but can also leave a joint feeling weak or unstable.
Because there are several ligaments supporting the ankle joint, the symptoms of a sprain can vary significantly depending on which ligament (or ligaments) have been injured, and how severely they are torn. While mild sprains might only result in mild pain and tenderness, severe sprains can cause significant instability and severe pain, making it difficult or impossible to bear weight on the affected foot.
Mild sprains, as you might imagine, are the ones that tend to get underestimated by the general population. So even if your symptoms seem to be fairly mild, you should still definitely give us a call to get our input if you suspect a sprain. We may recommend you come in as soon as possible for an evaluation, or just tell you to keep an eye on it for a few days—but either way, it’s best to know what to do sooner rather than later.
What Can Happen if I Don’t Treat My Ankle Sprain?
Basically, the problem with underestimating ankle sprains—even mild ones—is that it can set you down a path of repeated injury and worsening joint function.
One of the biggest risk factors for ankle sprains is whether you’ve already had one. That’s true even if you control for the fact that people who suffer sprains tend to be more active in general.
The simple explanation is that, if the injured ligament is not fully healed and rehabilitated before you return to full activity, it’s going to be weaker and looser than it should be. That in turn leads to a greater risk of more sprains in the future, and in severe cases, you may find that your ankle feels permanently wobbly or unstable. Untreated sprains can also hasten the development of ankle arthritis.
Again, that’s not to say every ankle sprain needs aggressive treatment or surgery. That definitely isn’t true! Many ankle sprains respond well to simple treatments. But it’s still very important to be disciplined about your treatment protocol. The last thing you want is for a careless mistake or a slightly-too-soon return to activity to turn a minor sprain into a major long-term issue!