For many people, sports and summer are nearly synonymous. Unfortunately, playing sports also opens the door to ankle sprains, the most common type of sports-related injury. Sprains are generally minor and heal quickly, but a recent study conducted at the Orthopedic Department of the University of Basel, Switzerland showed that in 20% to 40% of patients, sprains lead to chronic ankle instability, and that 70% to 80% of this patient subset eventually develops osteoarthritis in the affected ankle.
No one plans to sprain an ankle. Should it happen to you, what is the best way to reduce the chances of future problems? If you have previously sprained your ankle, what can you do to minimize the long-term impact?
The Mechanics of an Ankle Sprain
For answers, I asked orthopedic surgeon Craig Title, MD, who specializes in treating ankle injuries at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, for his advice. Dr. Title says that sprains happen when an ankle twists and stretches or partially tears the ligament -- the ropelike structures that connect the bones and keep them moving normally. Sprains typically occur on the outside of the ankle, although inside ligaments can be sprained as well. A simple sprain heals in several weeks, he says, but if the ligament is reinjured or if it heals in the lengthened position due to repeated injury, the ankle becomes unstable. Instead of moving only up and down as ankles are intended to do, it might wobble side to side. This sets the stage for recurring sprains, especially when walking on uneven or angled surfaces, or running and pivoting in sports. In very unstable ankles, sprains can recur as often as several times a week, he says.
Worse yet is when the ankle turns inward and sprains. This creates an abnormal shearing force on the cartilage -- the smooth material that protects the ends of joint bones and keeps them moving easily against each other. If this recurs, over time it wears down the cartilage, eventually causing osteoarthritis, which by definition is loss of cartilage.
The solution, of course, is to be sure any ankle sprain you might incur heals properly so that the ligaments do not stretch. Dr. Title says a minor sprain can initially be treated with RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) -- rest, ice and elevate your ankle for several days, and compress it with an ACE bandage for a week or longer.
Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, adds that after the initial swelling from the injury is under control, contrast therapy (alternating hot compresses with Epsom salt and cold compresses) two to three times per day can improve healing even further. Additionally, Dr. Rubman suggests that individuals use icy-hot sport rubs topically... and/or papaya and pineapple fruit or their enzymes, bromelain and papain, consumed between meals, to help speed the healing process.
See an orthopedist if you have pain that does not improve or if you have trouble walking.
Strength and support are critical to avoiding future sprains. Once the acute stage of a sprain is over, Dr. Title says to strengthen the muscles around your ankle by using a stationary bike (which requires your ankle only to go up and down) or swimming. For more severe sprains, you also will need to work with a physical therapist.
Protecting your ankle with an ankle support for playing sports can't hurt and some people find that, if nothing else, it feels more comfortable. However, if recurrence happens often, the orthopedist may recommend a lace-up or plastic stirrup brace such as the FlexLite Sport Hinged Ankle Brace, which will give some assistance with stability, says Dr. Title.
If you already have recurring ankle sprains, see an orthopedist right away. There are additional measures, such as ankle bracing, available and, if all else fails, surgery can shorten the problem ligament.
The Bauerfeind MalleoTrain Ankle Brace relieves ankle pain and swelling during sports and everyday activities. It provides outstanding support and comfort during strenous activities. The soft fabric and silicone support inserts provide more flexible movement than other ankle braces that have stiff plastic inserts. The anatomical knit carries controlled compression graduated at the edges to prevent constriction of circulation in the ankle and foot. It's also machine washable. It comes in a variety of sizes and colors!
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