If you have had the unfortunate experience of breaking an ankle, whether it was a simple break with only one bone fractured, or a compound break, you know just how painful the ordeal can be. In most cases, an ankle fracture will heal within 6-12 weeks, less so if it doesn’t require surgery, and longer if it does. The total recovery time is determined by the severity of the break, your overall health, and your age. So, what are some things you can do to make your recovery smoother and more successful? Let’s jump in.
1. Engage in PRICE. You are going to feel a lot of pain, see a lot of bruising and swelling, and have localized tenderness. To help manage these symptoms, we recommend that you engage in PRICE or protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation. You will be given a cast or boot for the protection portion, but you still need to be careful not to knock your leg or ankle off anything. Get tons of rest, use ice packs with velcro straps to keep them on, and compress and elevate to reduce swelling. You will want to take over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen.
2. Purchase Equipment to Make Your Life Easier. Look at getting yourself equipment that will make your life easier while you are in a hard cast. In doing this, not only do you save yourself a lot of frustration (anger consumes energy), but you will be kinder to yourself and your ankle. While this might sound a bit silly, it is important for you to be in a state of recovery and relaxation, not spending your time being frustrated at how your broken ankle has limited you. With this said, look at getting items like:
a. A shower bench! This is perfect for when you are in the non-weight-bearing stage of your recovery. This will allow you to keep some of your independence and keep you from accidentally putting weight on your ankle as you try to wash.
b. Ankle braces; a lot of them. Once you are out of your cast, putting in an ankle brace with structured (hard) sides will help you feel safer when you sleep. No accidental knocking of the ankle during those few transition weeks, from a hard cast to a soft one. This will also make getting in and out of bed easier if you wake up during the night.
c. Athletic pants with wide bottoms. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to put on or take off pants that do not fit around your boot. Plus, taking the boot on and off can be downright exhausting.
d. Apply for a temporary handicap parking placard. While this one isn’t a “purchase” it is something that can make it a whole lot easier to get yourself out of the house. Being able to get out, whether that’s with a friend, or by yourself, can do wonders for mental health and make the healing process a bit more positive.
3. Weight-Bearing Activities? Only when given the green light by your surgeon or your physical therapist. For those first few weeks, you will not be able to put any weight onto your ankle whatsoever, which means that you will need crutches or some kind of assistive device such as a wheelchair or scooter. Once you are able to return to weight-bearing activities, it is recommended that you do it slowly and reliably, using an upward progression of gradual weight increases.
Start with 5-10 minute chunks at the minimum weight and work your way up, as permitted by your doctor. Keep in mind that returning to weight-bearing activities can completely wipe you of any energy that you have. Not only is it a lot of work to rebuild the strength that was lost, but the energy your body needs to internally heal should not be underestimated.
4. Monitor Symptoms and Report Complications ASAP. It is critical that during your recovery, you monitor your symptoms and either write them down in a notebook or track them with a digital application. This should be done during the non-weight-bearing weeks and during the weight-bearing weeks as you work with your physical therapist and complete strength building exercises at home. Things like fever, numbness, increased swelling or pain, or color-changes in the ankle could indicate a complication. By having a complication looked at immediately, it may save you long-term issues such as chronic pain or arthritis from an improper heal.
5. Preventing Future Injuries. As you move through your recovery with your physical therapist, doctor, or both, talk with them about strategies that can help you prevent future problems like re-injury. Once you are able to put full weight back on your ankle, you may need to cross-train with high and low intensity activities in order to build up stronger muscle growth around the ankle joint. It is recommended that if you are going to engage in any high-intensity activities, that you get this cleared with your doctor and have your ankle routinely checked on even after you’ve recovered.
Another way to prevent future injuries is to make sure that you are eating a balanced diet with vitamins and minerals that support bone health. Eating items like cheese, nuts, green leafy vegetables, fish, and milk will help increase your calcium intake, and pick up a vitamin D supplement that gives you at least 10 micrograms a day. Be wary of getting too much vitamin A, as this can increase your risk for bone fractures.
The key to a successful recovery is to remember that healing takes time and a whole lot of energy. You need to start slow and go slow to avoid future complications and long-term negative impacts.