Mild sprains are often not serious enough to see your doctor. However, if you experience significant pain, inability to put weight on your foot, difficulty walking, numbness of any kind in your foot, ankle, or leg, or pain that does not lessen within one week, you should definitely see your doctor as this may indicate a severe sprain, fracture, or dislocation.
Sprains are typically graded a level 1, 2, or 3 depending on how severe the injury is and how many ligaments were damaged.
To assess your level of injury, a doctor will typically discuss your symptoms, your overall health, and how the injury happened. The doctor will check for tenderness, bruising, pain, and/or weakness and stability in your ankle. Additionally, your doctor may conduct any of the following tests to make assess for potential ligament and/or bone damage; x-rays, MRI, CT scan, bone scan, and/or arthroscopy.
Your ankle sprain will be assigned a grade based on the following:
You have experienced some overstretching and possible micro-tearing of the ligament tissues. You may experience:
- minimal swelling
- tenderness and bruising
- the ankle remains stable despite the injury
You have experienced partial tearing of the ligament tissues (usually two ligaments are involved). You may experience:
- affected walk, including potential for a slight limp
- visible swelling and pressure will increase pain
- moderate pain when moving ankle
- mild instability of your ankle
You have experienced full tearing of the ligament tissues in your ankle (typically involves two or three ligaments). You may experience:
- severely affected walk, including potential to need crutches
- severe pain, especially when moving ankle joint
- visible and immediate swelling
- considerable instability of your ankle
With a Grade 3 injury, you may also have sustained an avulsion fracture where your ligament is pulled from the bone which in severe cases will require surgery for reattachment.
In addition to the three grades of injury, there is also the category of chronic. A chronic injury is one that is persistent and recurring and is identified by the following symptoms:
- You experience stiffness and soreness in your joint and/or the surrounding areas for over one month
- Your bruising and swelling is gone, but your flexibility is limited and it’s hard to work your ankle joint at 100 percent.
If you have previously had a sprain and did not allow the ligaments to heal fully before returning to your normal activities and exercise, your chance of developing a chronic sprain are greatly increased. Often, in these instances, you are susceptible to muscle imbalances in your foot and ankle that will cause undo stress upon the ligaments and joints causing them to sprain again more easily in the future.
Note: Seek medical attention if you have difficulty walking, or the pain is significant or unbearable.