Sprained ankles are a common injury that happens from sudden twists and rolls of the ankle joint.
If you’ve suffered a sprained ankle, you may be wondering, “How long does a sprained ankle take to heal?”
Thankfully, most sprained ankles heal completely within 2-4 weeks with proper care and treatment however some sprains may even take more than 10 weeks to heal.
The severity of the sprain determines how long full recovery takes.
With appropriate rest, bracing, physical therapy exercises, and a gradual return to activity, sprained ankles can mend efficiently so you can get back on your feet again.
How Long Does a Sprained Ankle Take to Heal?
When you sprain your ankle, the muscles and ligaments that connect the ankle bones are stretched past their limits and small tears develop in the tissue.
The ankle joint also becomes inflamed as the body rushes white blood cells to the area to begin the healing process. The severity of the sprain determines the degree of ligament damage and subsequent recovery timeline.
A mild ankle sprain involves a slight stretching or minor, microscopic tears of the ligaments. Moderate sprains have partial ligament tears with more extensive damage.
In a severe ankle sprain, the ligaments experience complete ruptures. The more stretched and torn the ligaments, the longer it takes the ankle to mend.
Mild to moderate ankle sprain healing time
For a mild to moderate ankle sprain, swelling and pain typically improve within 2 to 4 weeks with proper self-care.
However, residual stiffness, tenderness, and weakness could linger for 1 to 2 months before the ankle fully recovers.
During the first week, elevating the ankle, applying ice packs, and taking anti-inflammatory medications help control pain and inflammation.
The RICE method – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – is recommended. As swelling subsides, gentle range of motion exercises can begin within a few days to prevent stiffness.
Most people can walk with a normal gait pattern and resume light physical activity within 7 to 10 days, depending on the severity.
Progressive strengthening and stretching continue over the next few weeks.
There may be mild discomfort with movement as the ligaments mend. By 6 weeks, the ligaments have healed enough to allow running and more vigorous activities.
However, the tissues need 3 months or longer to fully regenerate for complete stability and strength.
Severe ankle sprain recovery timeframe
A severe ankle sprain with a complete ligament tear requires more extensive healing. If the ankle is highly unstable with torn ligaments, surgery may be necessary.
This would prolong the recovery to 3 months or longer. When treated non-operatively, severe sprains typically take 6 to 8 weeks of rehabilitation.
Immobilizing the ankle initially helps protect the joint as the ligaments scar and repair themselves. A removable plastic boot or cast limits ankle motion for 2 to 3 weeks.
Physical therapy begins after 2 weeks to improve range of motion, muscle strength, balance, and gait mechanics. Swelling may persist for 4 to 6 weeks. Pain gradually decreases but arthritis may develop after a severe sprain.
Most people can wean out of the boot and resume modified activity after 6 weeks. However, full sports participation should wait 12 weeks or more to allow the new ligament tissue to completely mature.
Even after 3 months, there is often residual weakness and stiffness that takes 6 months to 1 year to fully resolve.
Factors That Affect Ankle Sprain Recovery Time
Several key factors influence the speed of ankle sprain healing:
The severity of initial injury
The severity of the ankle sprain directly corresponds to how long full recovery takes. Mild sprains with minimal ligament damage heal quicker than moderate tears or severe ruptures.
Minor sprains take 2 to 4 weeks while severe ones need 6 to 8 weeks due to more extensive tissue trauma.
Age of the person
Younger adults and teenagers heal more efficiently than older adults due to a more robust immune response.
The regenerative abilities of soft tissues decline with age. Older ligaments mend more slowly and may develop more scar tissue after an injury.
History of ankle sprains
If the ligaments were weakened and stretched from past ankle sprains, they take longer to heal after each subsequent injury.
There is greater instability and more difficulty restoring strength. Ankle braces, taping, or physical therapy help prevent recurrent sprains during the longer healing process.
Overall health condition
Being overweight, having diabetes or other chronic illnesses, smoking, and poor nutrition negatively impact injury recovery.
The body cannot direct as many resources toward healing and tissues repair more sluggishly with suboptimal health. Staying active and eating a nutrient-dense diet optimizes the recuperation process.
Dedication to the recommended rehabilitation program directly affects how quickly someone returns to sports and work activities.
Doing a range of motion, strength training, and balance exercises as advised accelerates healing. Prematurely returning to normal activity risks re-injury which further delays complete recovery.
The Ankle Sprain Healing Process
Understanding the phases of ankle sprain recovery provides a general timeline for what to expect:
Phase one – (Days 0 to 3)
In the first 72 hours after an ankle sprain, pain, swelling, and bruising develop around the ankle joint as the body’s inflammatory response activates.
The RICE method – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – helps minimize swelling during this phase. Pain medications are also used to relieve discomfort. Too much activity causes further inflammation which delays healing.
Phase two – (Days 3 to 21)
During this phase, the body begins repairing the damaged ligaments. New blood vessels form and connective tissue starts filling in tears. Swelling gradually reduces.
Range of motion exercises prevent stiffness while the ligaments mend. Gentle strengthening using resistance bands also maintains muscle tone around the joint. Pain lessens over a few weeks but some discomfort may remain with movement.
Phase three – (Weeks 3 to 6+)
The third phase involves the ligaments becoming strong and flexible again. Physical therapy focuses on progressively challenging the ankle more with stretching, balance, and strengthening exercises.
Normal gait patterns are restored. Most daily activities can be resumed but sports are restricted until at least 6 to 12 weeks.
The ligaments continue maturing for several months as collagen fibers align along tension lines for maximal stability.
Treatment to Help Ankle Sprains Heal Faster
While the natural healing process runs its course, certain treatments can help expedite ankle sprain recovery:
Rest and immobilization
Restricting activity and immobilizing the ankle with a boot or cast limits motion to allow the torn ligaments to repair. Crutches take pressure off the ankle when walking.
Rest is advised for the first 24 to 72 hours to control inflammation. After 1 to 2 weeks, gentle exercises can begin with the ankle partially immobilized in a brace to prevent re-injury.
Applying ice packs to the injured ankle for 15-20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours helps minimize pain and swelling, especially in the first few days.
The cold causes vasoconstriction to decrease bleeding and inflammation in the area during the initial phase of healing.
Wrapping the ankle firmly with an elastic bandage or ankle brace compresses the tissue to prevent further swelling. Compression limits excessive motion and provides comfort and support as the ligaments mend.
Keeping the ankle raised above the level of the heart assists with blood and fluid drainage to control inflammation and swelling. Gravity pulls excess fluid away from the ankle when it’s propped up on a stack of pillows.
Once the torn ligaments have settled, physical therapy focuses on regaining range of motion, strength, balance, and proper gait mechanics.
Stretching, massage, and joint mobilization techniques improve flexibility and function. Strengthening exercises use resistance bands, weights, and balance equipment.
Sports-specific retraining is also incorporated before returning to athletics.
After the immobilization period, wearing an ankle brace provides compression and support during activities.
The brace limits painful motions while allowing movement which encourages ligament healing. Continued bracing during sports helps prevent re-injury when recovering from ankle sprains.
ProPlantar Compression Ankle Brace is a high-quality brace that can help you feel some relief and also support you in the healing process.
Eating foods rich in the vitamins and minerals needed for tissue healing and bone health may optimize recovery. Protein helps rebuild damaged ligaments.
Calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium improve bone strength. Omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation. Tart cherry juice reduces swelling and pain.
Exercises to Rehabilitate a Sprained Ankle
Along with hands-on techniques, ankle sprain physical therapy programs focus on gradually restoring flexibility, strength, and balance through targeted exercises.
Early motion exercises
Gentle range of motion exercises within the first 1 to 2 weeks encourage ligament gliding and prevent stiffness while immobilized.
Rotating the foot clockwise and counterclockwise, drawing alphabet letters with the toes, and pushing the foot up and down increase mobility.
As pain allows, calf and foot stretches are incorporated to maintain the range of motion.
A towel or strap can be used to provide a gentle stretch of the plantar fascia. Stretching the Achilles tendon and toe flexors prevents tightness during the immobilization period.
Wobble boards, foam cushions, and uneven surfaces challenge the ankle to retrain position sense and balance reactions.
Hopping and jumping drills are added to improve dynamic stabilization. Sports agility maneuvers are simulated closer to return to play.
How Long After a Sprained Ankle Can I Return to Sport?
The timeline for returning to occupational and athletic activities depends on the severity of the initial sprain and the type of sport:
Return to Work
With sedentary jobs, people can often work from home after a few days of rest with mild ankle sprains. Using crutches or a boot helps when walking is required around the workplace.
Labor-intensive jobs need 1 to 3 weeks before full duty to allow ligament healing. High ankle sprains take over a month before heavy physical demands are permitted.
Return to Exercise and Sports
Light aerobic exercise can typically be resumed within 2 to 4 weeks of an ankle sprain. Running and more rigorous training require 4 to 6 weeks of recovery.
Sports involving pivoting, jumping, and cutting need 8 to 12 weeks before participation to prevent re-injury. Ankle bracing during athletics may be recommended for many months following a severe sprain.
Sports performance will be decreased until ligament strength and balance are fully restored.
Preventing Future Ankle Sprains
You can take certain steps to prevent getting ankle sprains in the future.
- Try to avoid intense exercises and use an ankle brace when you are working out.
- Wear shoes with adequate arch support, shock absorption, and ankle stabilization.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- If you have recently recovered from an ankle sprain then don’t return to intense workout routines right away.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common FAQs about how long it takes for a sprained ankle to heal:
Is it OK to walk on a sprained ankle?
It’s usually best to avoid walking on a severely sprained ankle for at least a few days to allow the ligaments to start healing. After that, you can slowly begin to walk on it again while avoiding activities that put too much stress on the ankle. Use crutches or a boot initially to help stabilize the ankle when walking.
How long should you stay off a sprained ankle?
For a mild sprain, around 2-3 days of rest is recommended. Moderate sprains need around 1-2 weeks of rest. Severe sprains require at least 2-3 weeks of avoiding weight bearing on the ankle.
How to heal a sprained ankle fast?
RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation is key. Also, slowly start gentle exercises like ankle rolls and stretches after a few days of rest to improve recovery. Don’t rush back into activity too quickly. See a physical therapist if it’s not improving.
Can I walk on my sprained ankle after 3 days?
It depends on the severity, but for mild-moderate sprains, gentle walking may be okay after 2-3 days of rest with the ankle wrapped or braced. Avoid extended walking or high-impact activity too soon. Listen to your body and stop if it hurts.
Do ligaments heal on their own?
Yes, ligaments like those damaged in a sprain do have the ability to heal on their own over time. Proper rest and care early on help optimize this natural healing potential. Immobilization for the first few days allows ligament fibers to start mending.
When should I see a doctor for an ankle sprain?
See a doctor if you can’t bear weight, have misshapen joints, or have severe swelling, bruising or pain a few days after injury. Seek evaluation for proper diagnosis and treatment if sprain doesn’t improve with self-care after 1 week.
Anyone can get a sprained ankle but if you are not careful a minor sprain can turn into a big issue. So, try to be patient with the recovery process and make sure that you take all the precautionary steps to ensure that your sprain heals without any further issues.