A sprained ankle can take four to six weeks to heal or even longer if the sprain is severe. Rehabilitation for a sprained ankle focuses on protecting the injury, reducing pain and swelling, and increasing range of motion and strength. While many minor sprains heal on their own with proper care at home, it is important for a doctor to diagnose an ankle sprain to rule out fractures and determine the severity of the injury.
Immediately following an ankle sprain injury, the patient should protect the joint and decrease swelling. Resting the affected ankle, applying ice for 20 to 30 minutes several times a day for the first week, and elevating it above heart level for 48 hours can prevent further damage to the joint and ligaments as well as decrease swelling. A protective brace with an air cushion helps stabilize the joint and prevents further injury during the initial period of rehabilitation for a sprained ankle. Doctors suggest that a patient use crutches to keep weight off of the affected foot for a week or more following the injury, depending on the severity.
After a doctor clears the patient to put some weight on the affected foot, the patient should begin exercises to increase strength and flexibility. Tracing patterns and shapes with the toe helps improve flexibility, though it may cause pain. These range of motion exercises can be performed while icing the ankle if pain or swelling occurs. Flexing the sprained ankle toward the body and then pointing the toe away from the body also helps improve flexibility and strength. Some patients undergo physical therapy to develop a plan for rehabilitation for a sprained ankle.
Several weeks or months after continuing regular exercises to restore movement in the affected ankle, patients can usually start returning to more strenuous activities, such as sports and high-impact exercise. It is vital for patients to refrain from these activities until cleared to do so by their doctors. A sprained ankle that does not heal properly is more likely to be injured again, and the patient may suffer from chronic pain if the joint becomes unstable. Many patients must continue to wear ankle braces for support and stability when playing sports following the initial period of rehabilitation for a sprained ankle.
In rare cases, surgery may be necessary to repair torn ligaments in the ankle and foot. Surgical intervention to remove bone fragments or reposition a ligament that is caught on a bone is also rare but sometimes needed. Doctors do not operate for ankle sprains unless the injury is severe and fails to respond to non-surgical treatment.