What can I Expect from Rehabilitation for a Sprained Ankle?

Amanda Barnhart

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.

A person with a sprained ankle.
A person with a sprained ankle.

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.

A man with a sprained ankle.
A man with a sprained ankle.

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.

A sprained ankle that has not properly healed can be a source of chronic ankle pain in the future.
A sprained ankle that has not properly healed can be a source of chronic ankle pain in the future.

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.

Healing a sprained ankle involves a significant amount of prevention.
Healing a sprained ankle involves a significant amount of prevention.

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.

Doctors may recommend a patient use crutches to stay off their sprained ankle for a week or so.
Doctors may recommend a patient use crutches to stay off their sprained ankle for a week or so.

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Discussion Comments


I sprained my ankle a few days ago (two days). It was really bad and now I have run 15 miles and sprinted with no pain and I am even faster than before the sprain. What does this mean?


I am frustrated. I had a really bad sprain. I was in a cast first, then wore a boot. Then after six weeks, I started PT. It's week eight now, but I still get a non-negligible amount of swelling every day and significant pain if I am not very careful. My range of motion is ridiculous. One week of active exercises and PT improved it by 3 degrees in most directions (still about 30 to go in at least some directions).

The frustration is also that other than telling me "it's a bad sprain" and "you will be back to walking and in your shoes four weeks after you start PT," my doctor didn't tell me anything. I want more details. I know from how it happened and after looking at ankle anatomy charts I injured a lot of ligaments, tendons and muscles. Did any of them tear completely? If yes, which ones?

I don't want to go through all this for a year and than hear something like, "you had a complete tear and it didn't heal, so we will have to do XYZ". I want to know more and to manage my expectations better than just wait and see what happens. It's a major inconvenience (putting it mildly) in my life as a 41 year old mom and bread winner.


@turkay1-- Have you tried doing sprained ankle exercises?

My doctor had told me to do some foot exercises after spraining my ankle and they seemed to help a lot. I used to do some light stretching, pointing my toe upwards and rolling a bottle under my foot. There is also something called a balance board. You stand on it and try to balance while it moves right and left. It helps strengthen the tendons and muscles in your ankle and foot.

You can try some of these exercises but if pain prevents you from doing them, you should see a doctor. It might be more serious than you realize. You don't want to make it worse by trying to treat it on your own if that's the case. It's better to get directions from your doctor. He may even be able to send you to physical therapy or rehabilitation for the exercises.


@turquouse-- Three weeks is pretty good but I guess you didn't sprain your ankle as bad as I did. It's been five weeks for mine and I'm still in a lot of pain. I've been using a protective brace too and I remove it sometimes to see the improvement and my ankle and foot still hurts a lot when I put pressure on it.

I don't know what else to do because I've done all the sprained ankle treatments that were mentioned. I've also started doing a contrast foot bath now because I heard it facilitates healing. I put my foot and ankle in a bucket of hot water first and then a bucket of cold water. I think it has helped with the inflammation but my ankle and foot are still not fully functional yet.

I was wearing a protective brace and used clutches for about three weeks when I sprained my ankle four months ago. I know for most people it doesn't take this long. But I didn't want to rush recovery. I heard that if you don't take good care of it the first time, it can get sprained over and over again.

So I basically kept the brace and clutches until it didn't hurt to walk. When I was home or in class, I put a chair under my foot and kept it up. I only applied ice the first day and then pain relieving and anti-inflammatory topical ointments the other days.

I think I did well with sprained ankle rehab because I haven't had another sprain even though I'm playing soccer three days a week.

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