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What can happen if I don’t treat a sprained ankle properly?

Sprains and strains are common injuries if you play a lot of serious sport. It is important to get any sprain dealt with early and if it is severe, looked at by a doctor as soon as possible. If you don’t treat the injury properly or get seen by a specialist, there are a number of problems that can occur. Waiting too long and not treating your sprain quickly in the right manner could make your injury worse, and it will mean it takes longer to heal. Read on for more advice on what can happen when you don’t treat a sprained ankle properly.

Sprained ankles are common complaints, especially among people who play competitive sport. Runners are at risk of sprained ankles due to the amount of wear and tear on the ankle area that running requires. Other sports where you twist and turn also put you at risk of ankle injuries, with tennis players also susceptible to this injury type.

How do sprains happen?

Sprains happen when you wrench or twist the ligament in the ankle, wrist or another joint so aggressively that you cause a lot of pain and swelling. However, the sprain is not enough to dislocate the bone. The sprain can stretch and tear the ligaments, which causes the pain. Ligaments are tough fibrous bands of tissue connecting muscle to bone and they can break if put under excessive strain.

Ankle sprains usually occur after walking or running on uneven ground. Risk factors in general for experiencing sprains include poor conditioning and weak muscles, fatigue from over-exercise or tired muscles, and lack of a proper warm up, so muscles are tight and therefore more prone to tears. Other risks for sprains include slippery surfaces and ill-fitting footwear.

Symptoms of sprains

Sprains will usually cause swelling and pain at the injury site. There may also be some bruising in your ankle and you will find it difficult to move the limb. When the sprain occurs, you could also hear a popping sound as the ligament tears. Sometimes, a sprain is also accompanied by muscle spasms or cramps, as the muscle contracts on its own causing discomfort.


You can often treat a sprain yourself by resting the affected area. You should not put weight on your ankle when it is sprained. You should apply an ice pack quickly to the ankle to bring down swelling and reduce pain. The ice pack should be held against the affected joint for about 20 minutes every 2 or 3 hours for best results. You should also wrap a bandage around the ankle to compress it and keep it elevated on a pillow.

Initially, you will want to treat the sprain yourself using these cold compresses, ice packs and elevation methods. If a sprain is only mild, you can treat it yourself using these methods and along with plenty of rest, you should be able to recover mobility and feel well again in a few days. However, if the sprain is severe, it might require surgery to repair torn ligaments.

Avoid getting the area hot, such as by having hot baths, and don’t massage the area for the first few days after the injury. You should also avoid drinking alcohol. Do not move the joint if there is a lot of pain, but when you can move it again without too much discomfort, you should try to keep it mobile so it doesn’t become stiff.

If you want to get help but don’t need to see a doctor, you could go to see a pharmacist who can advise on treatments. They might suggest you put some ointment onto the area or give you a cream or gel to rub into the skin. You might also need to take painkillers, as paracetamol can reduce pain and ibuprofen can reduce swelling. However, avoid taking ibuprofen for the first couple of days, as it can slow down the healing of the injury.

After a couple of weeks of rest, most sprains will feel much better but you should still avoid heavy exercise such as running. It can take up to 8 weeks to properly heal from an ankle sprain, while severe sprains can take many months.

You may also want to consider wearing an ankle support to offer additional stability when active, helping to minimise the risk of you rolling your ankle.

When to see a doctor

If the pain or swelling gets worse, you should go to see a doctor and if the pain is severe, you might require further treatment. Other times to see a doctor include if you can’t walk more than 4 steps at once without having to stop due to pain, if you can’t move the joint at all, or if the pain is directly over the joint or another bone.

If you hear a crack when the injury occurred, if the ankle changes shape or if the skin is discoloured, cold or numb, you should see a doctor immediately - in these instances, you should go to A and E or call 999, as it could be more serious. You can always call 111 for medical advice in a non-emergency situation, if you aren’t sure what to do next.

Recovery and rehabilitation

After your ankle is recovered from the injury, you need to begin exercising it again to increase mobility and regain strength in the joint and muscles. You need to increase flexibility, balance and coordination, which may all have suffered from your injury. After a few weeks of slow exercise and strengthening routines, you can begin to walk more and start to run again. You might need to keep your ankle taped up or bandaged to give it more strength.

Potential problems

If you don’t treat your sprained ankle properly, there are various health problems that could occur. For example, you could suffer from chronic pain and instability in your ankle. Without the right treatment, you could also end up with arthritis in your ankle. If your ankle still hurts after many months, it may mean that your injury hasn’t healed properly and the ligament is still damaged. It could also mean that you have another injury.