What Is an Ankle Sprain?

Medically Reviewed by Ross Brakeville, DPT on September 11, 2023
3 min read

Maybe you came down too hard when you jumped to catch a ball. Perhaps you stepped into a hole and twisted your foot. You might be the newest member of a common club: people with an ankle sprain.

This injury happens when the ligaments in your ankle tear or get stretched too much.

Ligaments are the strong, stretchy bands that help stabilize your ankle. They hold the bones of your ankle together, but they allow for some movement. When there is too much movement, you may get a sprain.

Sprains most often happen on the outside of the ankle when you “roll” your foot. This causes the ligament on the outside of your ankle to stretch more than it is able to.

Most ankle sprains happen when you’re playing sports. This is especially true for games where there’s a lot of jumping or a chance of stepping on someone’s foot. Those include:

  • Basketball
  • Soccer
  • Volleyball

Yet it’s also just as easy to sprain your ankle by stepping off a curb the wrong way or taking a walk on the beach.

You may have a greater chance for an ankle sprain if you’ve had one before. It’s also more likely if you have weak muscles in your hips and ankles.

Even genetics can play a role. It’s easier to turn your ankle and put strain on the ligament if your heel naturally turns more inward. That’s known as “hindfoot varus.”

One very clear sign of an ankle sprain is it hurts. A lot. Other symptoms you might have when your ankle is sprained:

  • Tenderness to the touch
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Itching
  • Cold or numb feet
  • Stiffness

If you tear your ligaments severely, you feel a pop or even hear a noise when the injury happens.

An ankle sprain may clear up on its own. Most fully heal between 2 and 12 weeks after you hurt it.

But if your pain is bothersome, especially when you put weight on the injured ankle, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.

They will be able to diagnose whether you have a sprain and rule out any more serious injuries with similar symptoms.

You should also see your doctor if the sprain doesn’t seem to be improving over the course of a week or two

Remember, swelling is a natural response to an injury as your body rushes blood to the affected area to help heal it. Since your ankle is so far away from your heart, it takes time to pump blood to and away from the injury. Because of this, you may see swelling long after the ankle has healed.

Speak to your doctor if you have:

  • Prolonged pain (especially when walking)
  • Bruising
  • Weakness

Sprains can range from minor to severe. Your doctor likely will put your sprain at one of three "grades" based on the amount of damage:

  • Grade 1: Your ankle will probably feel sore and may be slightly swollen. In this case, the ligament has been overstretched but not torn.
  • Grade 2: You have a partial tear in the ligament. This causes prolonged pain and swelling. It might prevent you from putting your full weight on the ankle. You may also notice bruising. This is because the tear has caused bleeding under your skin.
  • Grade 3: This is a full tear of the ankle ligament. You may have heard a popping sound when it happened. This level of sprain causes severe pain, swelling, and bruising. Because the ligament is no longer able to do its job, your ankle will feel unstable and you'll be unable to walk normally.