Whether you're a local sports league aficionado or a weekend warrior, you may at some point find yourself battling an aching or throbbing ankle after a particularly hard practice or match. Sports that involve a lot of running and quick directional changes, like soccer and lacrosse, tend to have a higher rate of ankle injuries than sports like baseball or football, but it's not unusual to experience an injury to your foot or ankle in any sport that requires you to run, walk, or stand.

Often, determining whether you're dealing with a muscle strain, ligament sprain, or bone fracture can be difficult. Read on to learn more about the differences between these three most common ankle injuries, as well as the best path to treatment for each.

Strain

Ankle strain is generally considered the least severe type of injury but can still cause pain and stiffness. Untreated strain can also develop into a more severe condition like tendonitis over time.

What Causes It?

Strain occurs whenever the ligaments or tendons that hold the ankle bones in place become inflamed or stretch too far. This condition can occur suddenly, as the result of a collision or quick movement, or gradually over time due to overuse of this connective tissue.

Although ligaments and tendons are responsible for most of your ankle's movement, you also have many tiny muscles in your ankle that can become inflamed from overuse. This inflammation may occur when you're training for a distance run by increasing the length of your runs by a few minutes (or miles) each day.

How Is It Treated?

Most mild to moderate ligament strains can be treated without medical intervention: easing up on your exercise routine until your ankle pain begins to subside, resting and elevating your ankle whenever you can, and taking anti-inflammatory medication when you experience a flare-up.

If you find yourself experiencing strain pain on a regular basis, you may want to consider cutting out the aggravating activities for good while you look for a lower-impact way to exercise.

Sprain

Ankle sprains tend to come in two varieties and three degrees of severity: inversion and eversion sprains of either the first, second, or third grade.

What Causes It?

Inversion sprains involve a partial or complete tear of one or more ligaments on the outside of your ankle, while eversion sprains affect the ligaments on the inside of your ankle. These sprains often happen from tripping, rolling your ankle, or landing awkwardly while bearing weight.

Because the damage to your ligaments in an inversion or eversion sprain involves torn (rather than stretched) tissue, ankle sprains are generally quite a bit more painful than strains. Grade I sprains are the least severe and may involve only minor pain and swelling, while Grade III sprains can be major enough to totally prevent you from walking on the affected ankle.

How Is It Treated?

Grade I sprains can often be treated with a similar protocol as that used for strains, but it's usually a good idea to visit a podiatrist or orthopedist for a firm diagnosis. For severe tears, you may need to wear an ankle brace or even a cast to prevent reinjury of the healing tissue; if reinjury continues to occur, you may need to have surgery to reconnect the ligaments.

Fracture

Unlike strains and sprains, which involve only the connective tissue holding your ankle bones in place, a fracture involves a break in the bone itself.

What Causes It?

Those who don't have a condition like osteoporosis, which can weaken the bone, will usually only suffer a fracture in connection with a sudden and severe impact. This fracture can occur while playing sports, in a car crash, or even just taking a big spill down a few stairs.

How Is It Treated?

Fractures will usually heal themselves as long as the bones are immobilized. Immobilization can be accomplished through a cast or stiff brace that holds the bone edges in place so a bond can be formed. Compound fractures involving multiple bone surfaces may need to be surgically repaired before a cast is applied.

Fortunately, if you're injured in the Des Moines area, you have plenty of treatment and therapy resources at your disposal to ensure you have the most complete recovery available.