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48: Recovering from a Sprained Ankle

Jun 09, 2020

Everyone has sprained an ankle at least once. They’re painful and recovery can take a long time. Producer Mitch rolled his ankle just before his very first 5k. We brought in sports medicine specialist Dr. Christopher Gee to cover prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of ankle sprains as well as how long it will take Mitch to get back to running.

Episode Transcript

This content was originally created for audio. Some elements such as tone, sound effects, and music can be hard to translate to text. As such, the following is a summary of the episode and has been edited for clarity. For the full experience, we encourage you to subscribe and listen— it's more fun that way.

Can a Person Prevent a Sprained Ankle?

Producer Mitch has been training for his very first 5k. After several months of improvement and finally reaching his goal of running a full five kilometers, he hit a major set back. He caught his toe on a bad patch of sidewalk and badly rolled his ankle. As if the loud crunch wasn't bad enough, It immediately became quite swollen and turned black and blue overnight.

According to sports medicine specialist, Dr. Christopher Gee, sprained ankles are quite common in sports like running. They can take a while to heal and can be a major setback to any athlete at any level.

One way to prevent a rolled ankle is to improve a person's proprioception. Proprioception is the body's ability to sense where it is in space. It's the sense that allows you to put your hand behind your head and still know how many fingers you're holding up.

When running, your foot gives the same type of feedback. The nerves in your foot send signals about the angle of the terrain, how far the foot is turning, where your leg is in space. In the best-case scenario, as your ankle starts to twist too far, your brain should sense what's happening and quickly use your leg muscles to straighten out the joint before the injury.

There are exercises available that can help improve a person's proprioception by retraining the nerves and neural pathways in your feet. These exercises can include standing on one foot or doing activities while on a wobble board.

Diagnosing an Ankle Injury

When a patient comes to Dr. Gee with a sprained ankle he diagnoses the severity and treatment through a three-part process.

First, Dr. Gee will get a history of the patient as well as a description of the event that caused the injury. It's important for the physician to know what kind of athlete the patient is. An injury in a new runner may have a different cause, treatment, or outcome than a seasoned runner. Additionally, the physician will ask a series of questions about what they heard and felt during the injury, which could clue them into the severity of the sprain

Next comes a series of x-rays of the injured joint. Fractures in any joint can be serious. They can require casting or surgery if severe enough. As such, it's important to rule out any breaks early in the treatment of a sprain.

Finally, the orthopedic physician will conduct an exam on the joint itself. An x-ray doesn't tell the whole story of an ankle sprain. There can be significant swelling and tearing of ligaments that won't show up on imaging. The doctor will assess how severe the bruising and swelling of the ankle is. Then they will press on joint lines to test for tearing and rotate the joint to check for functionality. This part of the process can be uncomfortable for the patient, but it's a crucial step to diagnosis

Treatment and Recovery after Rolling Your Ankle

After a sprained ankle, it can take weeks to get back to even walking around normally. It can take longer to get back to full activity, like running.

"The biggest thing to do is to get the fluid out and the swelling down," says Dr. Gee.

Inflammation in the joint is the first thing to treat. There is likely a lot of swelling and bruising with a sprained ankle, and the inflammatory response causes a majority of the pain and irritation. The swelling can be brought down by staying off of it, icing it, elevating it, and compressing the area with an ace bandage. This should be done for the first week or two after the injury.

Once the inflammation starts to come down, the second phase of recovery is working on motion exercises with the affected joint. Try moving your toes back and forth or "drawing the alphabet" by moving your toes around at the ankle. Short walks and spending time standing can also be helpful.

The final step of recovery is to gradually return to full activity. For runners, this may mean short jogging sessions at a slower speed. It's important to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard too early. Exerting beyond what your body can handle could lead to further injury and a longer recovery. Keep in mind, it can take 6-8 weeks after a sprain to get back to normal.

"It will get better," says Dr. Gee, "it just takes time."

The first 3-4 weeks of healing will be the hardest. Listen to your body and only do what feels comfortable. If the joint begins swelling, clicking, or causing pain, slow down.

Odds and Ends

The Who Cares About Men's Health 5K is on June 20. We encourage anyone who wants to join this virtual race and show support for Mitch as he gets closer to his goal of going from couch to 5K. The virtual race can be completed any way you'd like, whether it be running, biking, walking, skipping, whatever you can do to get in your physical activity that day.

We have received a handful of messages from listeners about testosterone therapy in response to Episode 22: "Will Testosterone Cure Everything?" The questions asked were quite specific and would require a professional's opinion. We will be bringing in a urologist in to help answer these questions in a future episode.

Just Going to Leave This Here

On this episode's Just Going to Leave This Here, Troy is overcoming his serious sports withdrawals by getting into space science and rocket launches. Scot urges listeners to stay vigilant on their efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

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