What Is Ankle Pain?
Ankle pain refers to any type of pain or discomfort in your
ankles. This pain could be caused by an injury, like a sprain, or by a medical
condition, such as arthritis.
According to the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS), an ankle sprain
is one of the most common causes of ankle pain — making up 85 percent of all
ankle injuries. A sprain occurs when your ligaments (the tissues that connect
bones) tear or get overstretched.
Most ankle sprains are lateral sprains, which occur when
your foot rolls, causing your outside ankle to twist toward the ground. This
action stretches or rips the ligaments. A sprained ankle often swells and
bruises for about seven to fourteen days. However, it may take a few months for
a severe injury to heal fully.
Once healed, the sprained ankle is sometimes permanently
weaker and less stable than the other ankle. According to a paper published by
the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the greatest risk factor for
ankle sprain is having a previous ankle sprain.
Causes of Ankle Pain
A sprain is a common cause of ankle pain. Pain can also be a
- arthritis (specifically osteoarthritis)
- nerve damage or injury, such as sciatica
- blocked blood vessels
- infection in the joint
A sprain is generally caused when the ankle rolls or twists so
that the outside ankle moves toward the ground, tearing the ligaments of the
ankle that hold the bones together. Rolling the ankle can also cause damage to
the cartilage or tendons of your ankle.
Gout occurs when uric acid builds up in the body. This
higher than normal concentration of uric acid (a by-product of the body’s
normal breakdown of old cells) can deposit crystals in the joints, causing
sharp pain. Pseudogout is a similar condition where calcium deposits build up
in the joints. Symptoms of both gout and pseudogout include pain, swelling, and
Arthritis can also cause ankle pain. Arthritis is the
inflammation of the joints. Multiple types of arthritis can cause pain in the
ankles, but osteoarthritis is the most common. Osteoarthritis is often caused
by wear and tear on the joints. The older people are, the more likely they are
to develop osteoarthritis.
Septic arthritis is arthritis that is caused by a bacterial
or fungal infection. This can cause pain in the ankles, if the ankles are one
of the areas infected.
Caring for Ankle Pain at Home
For immediate at-home treatment of ankle pain, the RICE
method is recommended. This includes:
- Rest — Avoid putting weight on your
ankle. Try to move as little as possible for the first few days. Use crutches
or a cane if you have to walk or move.
- Ice — Begin by putting a bag of ice on
your ankle for at least 20 minutes at a time. Do this three to five times a day
for three days after the injury. This helps reduce swelling and numb pain. Give
yourself about 90 minutes between icing sessions.
- Compression — Wrap your injured ankle
with an elastic bandage, like an ACE bandage. Do not wrap it so tightly that
your ankle becomes numb or that your toes turn blue.
- Elevation — Whenever possible, keep your
ankle raised above heart level on a stack of pillows or other type of support
You can take over-the-counter drugs, such as acetaminophen
or ibuprofen, to relieve pain and swelling.
Once your pain subsides, gently exercise your ankle by
rotating it in circles. Rotate both directions, and stop if it begins to hurt.
You can also use your hands to gently flex the ankle up and down. These
exercises will return your range of motion and help exercise your ankle,
lowering your risk of re-injury.
If your ankle pain is a result of arthritis, you will not be
able to heal or eliminate the pain. However, there are ways you can manage it.
It may help to:
- use topical pain relievers
- take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory
drugs) to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation
- stay physically active and follow a fitness program
focusing on moderate exercise
- practice healthy eating habits
- stretch to maintain a good range of motion in
- keep your body weight within a healthy range,
which will lessen stress on the joints
When to See a Doctor About Ankle Pain
You should visit your nearest emergency room or call 911 if:
- you cannot put any weight on your ankle and the
joint looks visibly disfigured — this might mean your ankle is broken
- you have intense pain even when you are not
moving or putting weight on your ankle
- your ankle makes a popping sound when you try to
In some cases, you will need to visit your doctor due to
your ankle pain. You should check in with your doctor if your pain does not go
away after a few weeks, or if the swelling in your ankle does not go down in
two to three days.
You will also need to see your doctor if you develop an
infection in your ankle. Signs of an infection include an ankle that becomes
warm, tender, and red, or a fever that is over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Your doctor may order an X-ray of your ankle. In some cases,
he or she will remove fluid from the joint using a needle. You may be given nonsteroidal
anti-inflammatory medications, braces, or other special protective gear. In
severe cases, ankle pain may require surgery.
Long-Term Outlook for Ankle Pain
A sprained ankle will often heal on its own if you follow
the RICE method. However, a sprained ankle is weakened and more likely to be
sprained again. A severe sprain may require surgery. An infection may require
Osteoarthritis is considered a chronic condition. Septic
arthritis can be chronic as well. Nothing can completely eliminate the ankle
pain associated with arthritis or keep it from returning. However, you can talk
to your doctor about treatment options and home remedies to help you deal with
Preventing Ankle Pain
Pain caused by medical conditions, such as arthritis, cannot
be prevented. Still, you can do the following to avoid sprains, and other
lifestyle-related injuries to your ankles:
- wear shoes that fit well and provide ample ankle
- avoid wearing high-heeled shoes
- stretch your ankles and legs before exercising
- wear ankle support gear while doing activities
that put strain on your ankles
- lose weight if you are overweight to reduce the
stress on your ankles
Poor balance is another well-established risk factor for
ankle injury. A review from BioMed Research International details research from the last 30
years, which has found that people with poor balance may be two to four times
as likely to experience ankle injuries compared to those with normal balance. Consider
practicing some simple balancing exercises to improve your balance and prevent
future ankle injuries. These can be as easy as standing on one leg without