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Diagnosing Foot & Ankle Sprains

At NYU Langone Orthopedic Center, our doctors are experts in diagnosing foot and ankle sprains.

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The foot is a complex structure, made up of 26 bones and 33 joints, as well as many blood vessels, nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues. The ankle is a joint in which the uppermost bone of the foot, called the talus, meets the ends of the tibia and fibula, or the lower leg bones. This joint allows you to move your foot up and down. Below this joint is the subtalar joint, which allows for side-to-side movement of the foot and ankle.

Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect bones and stabilize the foot. A sprain occurs when a ligament stretches or tears.

A foot sprain typically occurs in the ligaments in the middle part of the foot. This injury is most common during activities or sports that require you to plant your foot on the ground and pivot your body, such as basketball. It can also happen during sports in which the foot is locked into position, such as cycling or windsurfing. A sudden twist of the foot while walking on an uneven surface can also cause a foot sprain.

Ankle sprains may occur when your foot lands on the ground at an angle. It can happen while you’re wearing high-heeled shoes, walking on an uneven surface, or participating in sports. Ankle sprains usually occur in the ligaments on the outside of the ankle.

Foot and ankle sprains can range from a stretching of the ligaments to severe tears, in which a ligament severs completely from the bone. When a tear occurs, people sometimes hear a “pop.”


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Symptoms can include swelling, tenderness, bruising, and pain, especially when you put your weight on the affected foot or ankle. A sprain can restrict motion, making it difficult to walk.

Contact your doctor if you have trouble using your foot or ankle, if you experience severe pain, or if any pain lasts for several days or longer.

Diagnostic Tests for Foot and Ankle Sprains

Your NYU Langone doctor performs a physical examination, moving the foot or ankle to check for sensitivity and discomfort and to determine whether your range of motion or balance is affected. Your doctor may ask questions about your ability to walk, your symptoms, and any prior foot or ankle injuries.

One or more of the following tests may also be recommended.


Doctors use X-rays to rule out a foot fracture or an ankle dislocation. X-rays can also detect arthritis of the foot and the ankle, which can cause pain and swelling.

MRI Scans

During an MRI scan, magnetic fields and radio waves are used to create images of ligaments, tendons, and cartilage in the foot and ankle.

Your doctor may recommend an MRI scan to help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms, particularly if they don’t improve after four to six weeks. It may be ordered to detect stress fractures in the foot or a cartilage or tendon injury, which can cause symptoms similar to those of a sprain.

Our Research and Education in Foot and Ankle Sprains

Learn more about our research and professional education opportunities.