It happens to the best of us and the rest of us. A slight wobble here can send our ankle rolling in, and the next thing we know, we’ve got a sprain. In the US, 25,000 people sprain their ankle every single day.
It’s really quite a common incident, and this is also probably the reason why everyone seems to have their own version of treating a sprain. Is it hot treatment? Is it cold therapy? Is it hot then cold or cold then hot? This is the only hot and cold game you should truly master. After all, we don’t want that pain in the sprain staying mainly on the plain.
What is a sprain?
First, let’s define what a sprain is. When ligaments (those tough bands of fibrous tissue found in joints that connect bones together) are stretched or torn, a sprain occurs. This happens when a joint, commonly the ankle, gets twisted suddenly. It causes pain and swelling, but not dislocation.
Ankle sprains are the most common kind. It’s because our ankles are designed for a limited range of movement, yet it is used regularly when we walk, run and pretty much all motions involving the foot. Sprains occur when there’s a sudden change in direction or burst of movement. Tripping or falling awkwardly, which, unfortunately, can easily happen to some of us, can cause ankle sprains.
What are the symptoms of sprain?
Usual symptoms of a sprain include pain, swelling and bruising. The inability to move and use the joint can also happen. Depending on the severity of the sprain, degrees of the symptoms can vary. There are times that people can feel a pop or tear when the sprain incident occurs.
How is a sprain diagnosed?
A doctor will normally perform a physical exam and will check for swelling and tenderness in the affected joint or limb. X-rays can also be useful in ruling out a fracture or other bone injuries. In some cases, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can also be performed.
Doctors will also try to gauge the severity of a sprain. A mild sprain (or grade 1 sprain) can see the ligaments overstretched or have slight tears but joint stability is still there. Bruising in the injured area is either slight or not there at all, and the person is usually still able to put weight on the affected joint. If you have a mild sprain, you usually won’t need to see a doctor.
RICE, the immediate treatment plan after a sprain
Immediately after your sprain injury, ice should be applied to the sprained joint (ankle or knee). While being iced, the leg should also be elevated either above or at the same level as the heart for 15–20 minutes. After ice therapy, the ankle or knee should be compressed to prevent further swelling. This combination of rest, ice, compression and elevation should be continued for the next 48–72 hours.
Here’s a guide to the RICE method:
Rest – Stop activity in the injured leg immediately. Slow movement is fine, but try not to put weight on the affected joint.
Ice – It’s crucial to apply ice immediately following the sprain. The cold temperature will cause blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow to the injury, which in turn reduces swelling.
When you are icing a sprain, it’s important to use ice packs that are specifically for the leg. Leg ice packs like this one remain ice-cold for 25 minutes and stay flexible while frozen. This means that you do not have to use two ice packs (make-shift ice packs or ice bags will not sustain the same cold temperature for 25 minutes). This leg ice pack’s ability to stay flexible when frozen means that even when taken directly out of the freezer, it will comfortably contour around the sprained joint. To someone in a world of sprain pain, this means a lot! Specialised ice packs for legs are also sized right for the leg area, so it means that whether you’ve sprained your knee or ankle, your injured area is covered well.
Compress – After icing, wrap an elastic bandage or compression sleeve around the sprained joint. The pressure will help keep the flow of blood and fluids in the affected joint, reducing the chances of swelling.
Elevate – When doing all of these, make sure that your leg is elevated equal to or above heart level. In this position, the law of gravity will slow down blood flow to the injured area, which will help reduce swelling, making recovery much faster.
The RICE method, especially the icing part, should be done about four to eight times a day, until swelling has subsided.
Cold is your friend
Strictly speaking, ice packs (cold therapy) should be the first treatment after an injury like a sprain, most especially in the first 48 hours after the injury. This will help minimise swelling and will help lessen the pain.
Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, works by reducing blood and other liquid flow to the injured area. This can greatly reduce inflammation and swelling around the joint. The cold temperature also temporarily reduces nerve activity, which can help in alleviating pain.
Stay off the heat
When you have a sprain, stay away from the heat until the swelling completely subsides. This is extremely important, as heat makes inflammation and swelling worse. Heat encourages blood flow in the area, which is opposite of what we want to happen when an injury like a sprain occurs. This will prevent the sprain from healing and will make the pain worse.
When can you use heat on a sprain?
Heat can be used after a sprain to increase blood flow once the swelling has subsided. As a strict rule, wait until the swelling is gone before applying heat. This will typically take three or four days after the sprain occurs. It’s important to bear in mind that applying heat too soon following your sprain can increase swelling.
When should you see a doctor for your sprain?
While most sprains can be treated at home, please do not overlook the signs listed below. We urge you to see a doctor if you experience any of the following:
- The injured area appears crooked or has other lumps and bumps apart from the swelling.
- You totally cannot move the injured joint.
- You cannot walk more than four steps without intense pain.
- Your limb buckles completely when you try to put weight or use the affected joint.
- The area over and around the injured joint is extremely tender to the touch.
- There’s redness or the appearance of red streaks in the injury.
- If you have injured that area several times before.
Have you had your fair share of sprains? If you have any questions regarding sprain pain relief, or simply want to share your experience, please contact us!