Ankle sprains are a common type of injury, not just from sports. Some people say to apply a hot compress, others prefer using a cold compress, while there are those who suggest elevating the injured foot. Which one is the most appropriate treatment? Here, we share some basic knowledge about ankle sprains.
Chinese people suffer 10 times more ankle sprains than Americans
We often sprain our ankles when exercising, or when walking on uneven roads. We also see people twist their ankles while wearing high heels or platform shoes. Many ankle sprains occur from stepping off uneven pavement or curbs.
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Statistics show that each day, about 30,000 Americans seek medical treatment due to sprained ankles. The number is 10 times higher in China. A sprained ankle can lead to excessive stretching or tearing of the ligament around the joint. In more severe cases, it can cause bone fractures around the joint.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Western medicine take different approaches to how to treat ankle sprains. On the sports field, you will be taught to use RICE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. The Western approach is to immobilize the injury.
The TCM approach is to vigorously rub ankle sprains to mobilize qi and to stop the blood from congealing in the area. This can be painful so TCM uses an ointment called Dit Da Jow (跌打酒 diē dǎ jiǔ, falling and hitting wine), which is well known in martial arts circles and contains a natural pain relief from certain essential oils.
While the Eastern and Western ways may differ, both agree that if the bone is fractured, an X-ray must be taken before applying a compress or manual pressure.
How do we determine the severity of an ankle sprain injury?
Using the RICE Approach
If you hear a “popping” sound, the ligament may be completely torn. If you hear a “cracking” sound, it is an indication of a fractured bone, a more serious injury.
If the pain is not serious and there is no bruising or redness, you can rest at home and keep an eye on the injury. If the area becomes red, swollen, bruised, and more painful within a few hours, then go see a doctor immediately.
How to take care of ankle sprains
Lie down and apply a cold compress immediately. When sleeping or resting, place a pillow under the foot and elevate it about 4 inches higher than the heart. This allows the blood to flow back, which helps reduce swelling and pain.
The purpose of lying still is to rest and reduce movement. If the ligament is torn, walking will aggravate the injury. If there is a bone fracture, movements will increase the risk of fracture displacement. This could make the treatment more complicated and may require surgery, resulting in more physical pain, costly treatments, and possibly lengthy rehabilitation.
The difference between cold and hot compresses
Generally speaking, a cold compress is used within 24 to 48 hours of an injury. This is to suppress bleeding and swelling and reduce pain. After 24 hours, a hot compress can be used to improve blood circulation.
Try to apply a cold compress within minutes of the ankle sprain. Use an ice pack or a cold wet towel. Cold constricts the blood vessels and reduces internal bleeding, swelling, pain, and cramps. You can use a towel to wrap up ice cubes or a bag of frozen peas and apply it to the injured area.
Another option is to put ice cubes in a plastic bag, pour water into the bag, and place the bag on the injured area. Be careful not to apply the ice cubes directly onto the skin to avoid frostbite.
If you don’t have an ice pack, you can use a towel soaked in cold water and apply it to the area, or take a bowl of cold water to soak your foot in it. Apply a cold compress for half an hour, stop for one hour, and then repeat.
It is better to apply a hot compress 24 hours after the sprain. A hot compress is the opposite of a cold compress. Use a warm bag or hot towel and apply it directly onto the sprained area. You can also use warm vinegar or warm wine to promote blood circulation and relieve swelling and pain. Apply a hot compress for a maximum of 20 minutes, and do it twice a day.