Sprained ankles can occur while hiking along the trail due to the undulating terrain, which poses a danger of losing your step. Treating a sprained ankle usually includes a list of remedies, such as icing the area and elevating the foot. Surprisingly, these common steps have not been backed up by medical professionals and are actually misconceptions about healing a sprained ankle.
So, read on as we debunk the five common misconceptions about treating sprained ankles and provide solid advice on treating your injury.
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What Is a Sprained Ankle?
Typically, a sprain happens when one or more ligaments in your foot or ankle become overstretched or torn from overuse or injury. This may result in severe swelling and bruising, which can be quite painful and limit your mobility, depending on the extent of the injury.
The primary function of the ligaments in the knee is to stabilise the joint and prevent an excessive amount of motion. When they are stretched or torn, stability is lost, causing pain and swelling.
Some of the common symptoms of a sprained ankle include:
- Skin discolouration
A sprained ankle happens when your foot is turned inward and your ankle over-rotates. Sometimes, swelling or bruising can occur due to tripping and twisting the ankle. This often occurs when you wear improper hiking shoes that don’t adequately support the ankle.
However, it is important to note that everyone is susceptible to ankle sprains, even if you have well-fitted shoes. Walking on uneven surfaces, which hikers are no strangers to, already exposes you to some degree of risk of sustaining a sprained ankle.
The most common cause of sprained ankles is falling from a misstep and landing awkwardly, which most hikers understand well. But not many are aware of the misconceptions about treating sprained ankles.
So without further ado, here are the misconceptions of which to be aware as you’re treating and healing your sprained ankle.
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#1: Icing the Ankle
“Icing” is part of the R.I.C.E recovery plan encompassing rest, ice, compression, and elevation. This has been touted for many years as the surest way of treating sprained ankles.
Following the R.I.C.E framework requires you to rest the injured area, ice it for at least 20 minutes four to eight times a day, apply compression for up to a week, and elevate it to reduce swelling and bruising.
While the other aspects of the framework are still effective in dealing with sprained ankles, some medical doctors now question resting and icing the ankle.
According to Gabe Mirkin, the author of The Sports Medicine Book, where the R.I.C.E framework was first introduced, icing right after a sprain helped cool the injury and prevent swelling.
However, he was forced to change his recommendation after reviewing research that showed icing sprained ankle further damages the ligaments by shutting off blood supply to the area. The blood is needed to help the tissue cells heal.
Essentially, icing doesn’t increase the healing but delays it. Mirkin and other medical doctors now recommend skipping the icing part altogether unless the pain is unbearable. Even if you decide to use it, you should keep in mind that it becomes ineffective 24 hours after injury.
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#2 Compressing the Ankle Tightly
Compressing your ankle after a sprain can help you recover, but you must ensure you are doing it correctly.
Wrapping your ankle too tightly restricts blood circulation to the injured area, interfering with healing. A tight compression can also damage the tissues further. But, wrapping the injured area loosely may allow too much movement, which prevents the ligaments from getting the support they need to recover.
Instead, the primary purpose of compressing the ankle is to temporarily provide support for moving around. In other words, you don’t really need support when you are asleep unless your sprain is very severe. That is why doctors don’t recommend wearing the brace when you go to bed. Before you wrap your ankle, wash and dry it thoroughly and take your time to bind the area correctly.
#3 Resting the Ankle and Avoiding Walking
If you are still following the R.I.C.E framework, you will probably argue that rest is essential to your recovery.
While this is true to some extent, medical research suggests that you need to move to aid recovery. That is why some experts have replaced the “R” in R.I.C.E with “M” to form a new acronym, M.I.C.E (Movement, Icing, Compression, and Elevation).
You need to keep in mind that complete inactivity restricts blood flow to the injured area, slowing down the healing process.
On the contrary, a slight movement and physical exercise increase blood and oxygen flow to the injured area while eliminating metabolic waste. In addition, the movement aids tissue healing by stimulating the release of chemical growth factors from the surrounding cells.
The release of growth chemicals plays a critical role in combining proteins and other structural scaffolds needed to strengthen, repair, and maintain muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.
Consider undertaking light balance exercises to reduce the rate of re-injury, which is common after suffering the first sprain. Ask your doctor to recommend appropriate exercises that can help you heal faster.
#4 Elevating the Ankle to Reduce Inflammation
The last “E” in the R.I.C.E framework stands for “Elevation.” In this case, you must raise the injured area to reduce swelling.
But the real reason for elevation isn’t to prevent swelling but to reduce inflammation. The truth is that most of us don’t like hearing the word inflammation. We have been made to believe that it is bad. But is it true that inflammation is always harmful? The short answer is “no.” While chronic and low-level inflammation is partially responsible for some diseases, not all inflammation is harmful.
In fact, inflammation is a vital part of your immune system. When you suffer a sprain on your ankle, your body’s immune system starts to pump blood, proteins, and other fluids to the injured area to aid the healing process.
The increased circulation of blood and nutrients to the injured area creates swelling and slight heat to protect and repair the damaged ligaments. This is what most of us refer to as inflammation.
Simply put, inflammation may occur due to your body’s natural healing mechanism. Therefore, the swelling you may experience is a clear sign that your body has circulated the necessary blood, proteins, plasma, stem cells, and other fluids to the injured area to begin healing.
This type of inflammation is usually acute and temporary. Trying to stop this natural healing process with anti-inflammatory drugs can inhibit your body’s automatic immune response and prolong the healing process.
#5 Avoiding Exercise
Another misnomer is that you should avoid exercise when you have a sprained ankle. On the contrary, exercise is the best way to regain strength after an ankle sprain.
You can start with short walks and then build up gradually to other forms of exercise. Physical workout restores strength and balance while preventing the injured ligaments from weakening. This can reduce your risk of suffering another sprain.
Once the swelling has subsided and you can walk comfortably, consider exercising the ankle further. The primary objective is to ensure that the healing process and rehabilitation strengthen the entire lower chain starting with your hip, while incorporating balance and coordination.
It also focuses on strengthening the muscle group, essential in preventing future ankle sprains. Physical therapy exercises are usually low-intensity and strongly recommended for full recovery and rehabilitation.
Besides preventing recurrent ankle sprains, physical exercise also promotes stability, making your ankle stronger.
Ankle sprains are common and can occur due to strenuous exercise (including hiking), accidents, tripping and twisting your ankle, or even rolling over in your sleep.
Whenever you suffer a sprained ankle, do the right thing to kickstart the healing process. As noted, icing and resting the area has been proven to be minimally effective in restoring the ankle.
If your sprain is severe, make sure you see your doctor immediately. They will assess the true extent of the injury and recommend appropriate measures.
Have you experienced a sprained ankle while hiking? What steps did you use for healing the sprained ankle? Please share your insights with us in the comments below.
This article was first published on August 29, 2021, and most recently updated on May 23, 2023.