Sprained ankles are super common injuries: As many as 25,000 people sprain their ankles every day [source: American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society]. With all those sprains you'd think we'd be experts at self-treating a minor trauma, but most of us don't know what to do when it happens — so we go to the emergency room. Most sprains and strains can be treated right at home with the proper first aid: rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) during the first two days. And yet, it's estimated in 2009, more than one-third (36 percent) of all ER visits in the U.S. were for sprains and strains to lower extremities. That includes hips, knees, ankles, thighs, legs and feet, but a twisted ankle is most common [source: Lambers et al.].
Sprains cause bruising, swelling and pain; an awkward twist or fall is all that's needed to stretch or tear ligaments (those are fibrous bands of collagen connecting bones to other bones to form a joint). A strain is a little different. Strains happen when you overstretch or tear a muscle or tendon (the tissue that connects your muscle to your bones), such as straining your back trying to lift a heavy object. Sprains and strains are typically minor injuries, albeit painful.
If you think your injury is more severe than a torn ligament or overworked muscle, visit your primary care physician or medical team at an urgent care center for an X-ray to evaluate the damage. Breaks, fractures and dislocations often need additional treatment beyond RICE. Save the visit to the emergency department for severe injuries such as visible bone. Otherwise, you're going to spend a lot of time in the waiting area while emergency teams focus on patients with life-threatening conditions.