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Watch Your Step! 3 Common Leg and Foot Injuries

With all the respiratory and viral illnesses prevalent during the winter months, we might not have thought about the mechanical injuries that could happen to our kids’ bodies – or ours – in a while. Our legs and feet literally carry us throughout our day, so they deserve some care and attention. Let’s take a look at the most common lower extremity injuries I see in pediatric urgent care: how to recognize, prevent, and treat them.

Ankle Sprain

Ankle bones are held together by tough, elastic tissue called ligaments, which work to stabilize and protect the joints. When the foot is bent or twisted in an unnatural way, the ligaments stretch and can even tear. This usually happens during fast-paced physical activity that involves jumping or running. Landing awkwardly on the foot or navigating uneven surfaces can result in a sprained ankle. 

While definitely painful, an ankle sprain is not necessarily a severe injury that requires intense and immediate medical intervention. If you or your child may have sprained an ankle, watch out for the following symptoms:

If you notice any of this, consult with a medical professional to assess the extent of the damage. A lot of the time, ankle sprains can be treated with rest and at-home treatment and do not even need an xray, but this depends on how severe the injury is, so it’s best to be on the safe side. 

Here are some ways to help children prevent ankle sprains and other leg/foot injuries: 

Most of the time, ankle sprains are treated with supportive care, which includes immobilizing the joint, sometimes with a hard fiberglass splint, sometimes with a prefabricated joint splint, and using crutches to avoid further trauma to the already stressed joint. Length of time in a splint and on crutches varies according to injury severity and individual response.

Knee Ligament Tear

Just like the ankles, the knees are also held together by ligaments – four major ones, to be exact. Out of those four, the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is the most commonly injured one, but all of them are equally important in the leg’s function. A knee ligament tear is often accompanied by a loud popping sound, sudden and sharp pain, and swelling within the first day after the injury. Putting weight on the injured leg is usually quite painful, if not impossible. 

Unlike ankle sprains, knee ligament tears require medical attention and diagnostics, often consisting of x-rays (if there is concern for and to rule out a fracture) and MRIs. If the damage is significant enough, surgery and/or physical therapy may be necessary. After the injury, elevate and ice the knee, and take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever, such as ibuprofen. 

The knee is a crucial part of the leg, so any knee injury should be taken seriously. While it is possible to live and function with a damaged knee ligament, most people would feel unstable and painful feelings that are very uncomfortable, if not ultimately debilitating and destructive. Early arthritis is no fun either, so don’t ignore a knee injury.

Broken Toe

Ah, and of course – this post would be incomplete without the dreaded broken toe mention. In comparison to other bones breaking, toe fractures are not as serious and can often be treated without a cast. However, depending on the placement of the break and the toe affected, treatment might need to involve specialty care. Typically, a supportive walking cast shoe is all the splint/cast type material that’s needed to heal the toe, other than time.

Toe breaks are commonly caused by running into something or dropping a heavy object on the foot. Common symptoms include pain, swelling, and discoloration. Most toe fractures can be treated by securing the injured toe to its healthy neighbor to stabilize it and then adding the cast shoe. However, some broken toes may become infected if there’s an open cut overlying the break. This is called an open fracture, and can lead to germs getting into the bone, which can be quite serious. This is why it’s important to see a medical professional if the initial symptoms persist for more than a few days after the injury or if walking or wearing shoes is affected. 

This is by no means a comprehensive list of common lower extremity injuries, but it is probably the top 3 most common ones I see in my practice each week.