Who wants to be sidelined by an injury? Using good form when you exercise and varying your training will help you avoid injuries, but, sometimes, despite your best efforts, you end up with a sprain. According to Medscape Family Medicine, sprains account for almost a third of the injuries that doctors in sport medicine clinics see.
The most common sprains are of the ankle and athletes most likely to sustain one are basketball, volleyball, and soccer players. However, you can develop an ankle sprain from running or doing almost any high-intensity movements that involve running or jumping. Females are at a 25% higher risk of developing an ankle sprain relative to males.
If you’re unlucky to sustain such an injury, should you nurse it back to health at home or seek medical attention?
What Causes a Sprain?
People often lump sprains and strains together, but they’re different injuries. A strain is an injury that causes a muscle or tendon to stretch too far. With mild strains, the injured muscle or tendon is only overstretched, but in higher grade strains, the muscle or tendon is may be partially or completely torn or ruptured.
In contrast, a sprain is an injury to a ligament, the tough connective tissue that connects two bones together. The most common area for sprains is the ligaments that support the ankles and often involves twisting the ankle or stepping in a way that causes the foot to turn too far inward or outward. As with muscle strains, the ligament can be stretched or torn. Torn ligaments take longer to heal and may require surgery.
Should You Treat a Sprain at Home?
You should know how to handle a sprain should one happen. Many people are reluctant to see a physician when they’re injured. They stay at home, nurse their injury, and hope it gets better and they can get back to their exercise program. With mild sprains, that’s often what happens, although the injury can linger, and the risk of a recurrence is higher. However, sprains aren’t always “simple.” Complications you can have with a sprained ligament include chronic pain, joint dislocation, and injury to the cartilage within the injured joint.
You can also get more than you bargained for with a sprain. You might think you only have an ankle sprain, but if you can’t bear weight on the limb and have a lot of discoloration and swelling, you could have a fractured bone or a dislocated joint. That’s something not to ignore! Plus, when you damage the ligaments, muscles, tendons, bones, or nerves can be injured along with the ligaments. So, it’s important to know signs suggestive of a more serious injury.
These are signs that a sprain may be more serious or have a higher risk of complications:
· Inability to bear weight on the affected ankle after 24 hours.
· Problems bearing weight that persist beyond 4 days.
· For an ankle sprain, cold toes or toes that are blue or numb.
· Bumps or nodules in the area that weren’t there before.
· Pain that extends beyond the injured ligament.
· Marked bruising or swelling.
· Persistent pain.
Physicians describe sprains in medical terms by assigning a grade. A grade one sprain is the mildest and a grade three is the most severe. People who have a grade one ankle sprain can often treat their sprain at home using conservative measures like rest, ice compression, and elevation. This mild sprain is because of stretching the ligament too far without tearing it.
Grade two sprains may heal at home too, although some physicians recommend immobilizing these sprains for a short period to keep them stable. However, grade three sprains require medical attention since the ligament is torn and may require surgery. If you treat a grade three sprain at home, you could end up with chronic joint instability. You don’t want this, as it can impact your ability to play sports and even affect your balance.
Nerve damage is also more common with a grade two or three sprains. According to one study, 15% of people with grade two and three knee sprains also have nerve damage that leads to chronic numbness, tingling, or burning in the area. That’s why it’s important to get medical attention for all but minor sprains. So, keep the signs listed above in your head and see a physician if you experience any of them after a sprain. It can lower your chances of chronic orthopedic problems.
When and How to Treat at Home
If you can bear weight on a sprain and you don’t have a significant amount of pain, swelling, or radiating pain, you can usually treat a sprain at home. The treatment consists of RICE–rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Sound familiar? How and why does it work?
Rest and elevation keep stress off of the injured ligament and reduces swelling. Ice is also helpful for keeping the swelling down. The best way to apply ice is to use a cold pack wrapped in a towel. Leave it on the 10 minutes at a time and reapply every few hours for the first few days.
How about compression? A compressive wrap applies pressure that helps further minimize swelling. You can buy an elastic bandage at a drugstore and wrap it around a sprained ankle. Depending on how severe the injury is, you can also apply a splint to stabilize the ankle.
Remember, you should only self-treat at home if you don’t have the signs of a more serious sprain such as difficulty bearing weight, lots of bruising or swelling, or pain that radiates beyond the injury. If it’s possible that you have a grade two or three sprain, get a medical evaluation as soon as possible. Even if you have a mild sprain, seek help if the swelling and bruising don’t go down in a few days. It may take several weeks to months for an ankle sprain to heal completely. The risk of re-spraining the ankle is higher for the first 12 months after injury, and repetitive injuries to the same joint increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis in that joint.
The Bottom Line
When in doubt, seek medical care for a sprain and use the above symptoms as a guide. A sprain increases your risk of future sprains in the same area. Plus, you can develop complications from grade two or three sprains. Take them seriously.
· OrthoInfo.com. “Sprains, Strains and Other Soft-Tissue Injuries”
· Podiatry Today. “Recognizing Nerve Injuries In Patients With Acute Ankle Sprains”
· Mayo Clinic. “Diabetes and exercise: When to monitor your blood sugar”
· Medscape.com Family Medicine. “What is the prevalence of ankle sprains?”