How Serious is My Ankle Sprain?

Nov 4, 2021

Ankle sprains are very common injuries – so common that sometimes it feels as if their potential severity can be overlooked.

While it is true that many mild ankle sprains can recover well through care at home, that does not mean all of them can. There are severe sprains that require prompt professional care, and even some mild sprains can lead to future problems if they do not heal properly.

So if you or a loved one has suffered a sprain and you are wondering if it may require more attention than resting it at home, this blog will tell you more about the different degrees of ankle sprains and their symptoms. But before we go into that, we want to make sure one valuable fact is clear.

There is No Ankle Sprain Too Minor for Professional Help

You never have to worry about an ankle sprain ever being “not bad enough” to reach out to us about it. In all seriousness, we wish more people would do so!

Too many people tend to underestimate the extent of a sprain, or do not take the best approach to recovery. Perhaps it comes down to the stigma that every sprain can or should be treated on its own, or that you’d be “wasting our time” with something trivial. Neither case is true.

We would always rather know about a sprain than not, no matter how mild or severe it may feel. If you do contact us, we may not always ask you to come in. What we can do, however, is provide advice for recovery and keep note of the injury in your file. That way, if future ankle problems do develop, we have a history to consult for better diagnosis and treatment planning.

A woman has sprained her ankle while hiking, her friend uses the first aid kit to tend to the injury

Grading the Severity of Ankle Sprains

The severity of ankle sprains is typically divided into three categories or “grades,” with the first being least severe and the last most severe.

Before diving into them further, let’s ensure we all have a base definition for what a sprain is, exactly.

A sprain occurs when one or more of the ligaments in a joint becomes overstretched or torn. The ligaments are the tough tissues that connect bones to other bones, and they play a significant role in keeping each joint stable.

Sprains can happen in most joints. When an ankle is sprained, it is typically due to a forceful rolling or twist of the ankle. This can happen during any unstable form of movement, such as running across uneven surfaces (especially if you don’t expect it), landing awkwardly from a jump, or even stepping off a sudden curb you weren’t prepared for.

The three common grades of ankle sprains are as follows.

Grade 1 Ankle Sprain

In a Grade 1 sprain, there is some mild overstretching or tearing of one or more ligaments in the ankle. Common symptoms include:

  • Swelling, often relatively mild
  • Pain, often relatively mild
  • Stiffness

You will likely not see any discoloration, and it should not be too challenging to walk on the sprained ankle (although you shouldn’t).

Grade 2 Ankle Sprain

In a Grade 2 sprain, more severe tearing of a ligament is present, but that tear has not gone completely through the tissue. Common symptoms include:

  • Swelling, often substantial
  • Pain, often substantial
  • Possible bruising of the ankle
  • Moderate ankle instability and difficulty walking (although again, you should not walk on the ankle as much as possible).

As you might suspect, a grade 2 ankle sprain will take more time to fully recover from, and more investment may be needed into gradually rebuilding motion, strength, and flexibility in the ankle.

Grade 3 Ankle Sprain

In a grade 3 ankle sprain, at least one ligament has been fully torn (ruptured). Symptoms include:

  • Severe pain, often most intense at the time of injury
  • Severe swelling
  • Deep bruising
  • Significant instability in the joint

It may be very difficult or impossible to walk on the affected ankle, and we cannot stress enough that YOU SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT TO DO SO.

While you can still always call us for any ankle sprain – and all should receive a medical evaluation – anything that is Grade 2 or Grade 3 will almost always require more considerate and experienced care.

There may be cases when you are unsure whether an ankle injury is a severe sprain or a fracture. That’s all right, and honestly, you do not need to know right at that moment. If you are at that point, it’s clear you need medical attention! We can determine what’s wrong and treat it appropriately.

Ankle Sprain

Finding the Right Treatment for Your Ankle Sprain

Anytime you suspect an ankle sprain, regardless of its severity, stop the activity and take the weight off the ankle as quickly as possible. Trying to “push through” the injury can easily make the injury worse.

Instead, start RICE therapy (rest, ice, compression, elevation – described in more detail on our Ankle Sprain page) and give us a call. We can instruct you on further treatment or ask you to come in for professional care.

Our goal for every sprain is to get you back to full strength and action as quickly and as safely as possible. We will not recommend any actions that may complicate your recovery or increase your risk of causing future complications, such as chronic ankle instability or pain.

Most ankle sprains can be successfully treated with conservative measures such as temporary immobilization, medication, and gradual stretching and exercise to rebuild strength and mobility. Surgery is rarely necessary and is typically only considered in very severe cases or when other cases have not healed properly.

We will always be happy to help you find the best path to recovery from an ankle sprain. Schedule an appointment by calling one of our offices or by filling out our online contact form.