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Ankle Sprain Rehabilitation

Immediate action can reduce recovery time


Updated June 09, 2014

Woman with bandage on ankle, low angle view
PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Ankle sprains are common sports injuries for stop-and-start running sports, like sprint racing. The proper treatment of a sprain can help you quickly recover and prevent future problems.

After an ankle sprain it is important to act quickly. You should immediately use the R.I.C.E treatment method -- stop the activity and apply a compression wrap and ice in order to keep swelling to a minimum. Ice should be used for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Leaving ice on any longer can risk frostburn and cause tissue damage. Keep your leg elevated to decrease the blood flow (and swelling) to the foot.

It's also helpful to use an nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication to help control inflammation. Studies have found that patients using NSAIDs after ankle sprains had less pain, decreased swelling, and a more rapid return to activity than those who didn't take any medication.

The sooner you treat the sprain, the sooner you will recover. Take a hint from the pros: By getting immediate attention, they are back out there in a matter of days. If you do nothing, keep playing and then put some ice on your ankle later that night, you will end up with a sprain that can take weeks or months to heal properly. Most of the damage from a sprain comes from the swelling. Your main goal is to reduce swelling as much as possible, and to do that, every second counts.

If you play sports where an ankle sprain is likely (soccer, track, football, basketball, etc...) you should always have a first aid kit nearby. Such a kit should include compression wraps, ice packs, splints, bandages, NSAIDs and other basic first aid supplies.

For a severe sprain (one you can not put weight on), you may need a visit to a physician to make sure you don't have a fracture, ligament tendon damage or another serious ankle injury. In general, you should avoid putting weight on the joint as long as you have swelling. When possible, you should keep your foot elevated. Within a couple of days, your pain should decrease enough to allow moderate weight bearing without pain. As you are able to tolerate more weight, you can begin a walking and gentle stretching program to increase your flexibility.

Ankle Sprain Rehab Exercises

After your injury, you will be given an exercise program that includes range of motion exercises and a gradual progression to full weight bearing. One simple exercise is to draw the letters of the alphabet with your toes. Gradual progression to weight-bearing exercises should follow.

Proprioception exercises and other balance exercises can help you recover more quickly and should actually be preformed as part of a prevention program. Poor balance is a good predictor of future ankle sprains. After an ankle injury, balance training is essential to recovery. In addition to our eyes and inner ears, there are special receptors in our joints (proprioceptors) that provide information about our position in space.

By balancing on one leg, you can reinforce and strengthen those receptors in the ankle. Balance on the affected leg and hold steady for 15 seconds. Continue to challenge your ankle by balancing with your eyes closed, or with your head turning from side to side. If you play soccer, balance on your sprained ankle and kick a soccer ball against a wall. If you play basketball, balance and shoot or practice bounce passes. Get creative with your exercise to match your sport.

Ankle sprains can be prevented by using appropriate equipment for your sport. However, sport-specific shoes and protective gear are just the start. To avoid ankle sprains, you need to strengthen your ankle joint and develop a highly refined balance system. And don't forget to keep your first aid kit nearby. Just in case.


Acute ankle sprain: an update., American Family Physician. 2006 Nov 15;74(10):1714-20.

Petrella R, Ekman EF, Schuller R, Fort JG. Efficacy of celecoxib, a COX-2-specific inhibitor, and naproxen in the management of acute ankle sprain. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 2004;14:225-31.

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