Ankle effusion is a buildup of fluid in the ankle joint. Effusion causes pain and swelling in the ankle, and it can lead to complications because it may put pressure on tissues in the surrounding area and damage them. Treatment of ankle effusion depends on the severity of the effusion and the cause. Patients often see an orthopedic doctor or a foot and ankle specialist for treatment of ankle injuries, as these physicians have special training and experience and are skilled at managing such injuries. However, a general practitioner can also provide adequate care for basic injuries.
Effusion can occur inside the ankle joint as a result of trauma, inflammation, or infection. Sports are a common cause of trauma to the ankle which results in effusion, although swelling inside the joint can also occur as the result of a fall which twisted the ankle or a sharp blow to the ankle. Inflammation and infection may be caused by any number of factors ranging from autoimmune inflammation caused by an overactive immune system to infection as a result of contact with an infectious organism.
When viewed in medical imaging studies, the condition is characterized by a distinctive “teardrop sign,” a reference to the shape the fluid in the ankle takes. A doctor will order such studies to determine the extent of the swelling and to check for injuries which may not be apparent on physical examination. For example, there could be a hairline fracture of one of the bones in the ankle which leads to inflammation and swelling.
The first step in treating ankle effusion is trying to bring the swelling down so that the patient will be more comfortable. Anti-inflammatory drugs can be prescribed, including injections of steroids into the ankle to bring down heavy swelling. Patients may also be advised to ice and elevate the ankle to promote a reduction in swelling. If the joint is extremely swollen, it may be aspirated with a needle to remove the excess fluid.
When the joint swelling has been addressed, the doctor may address the cause. Fluid can build up inside the synovial space inside the ankle again, potentially causing a repeat of the ankle effusion and leading to complications. There may be steps which can be taken to reduce swelling in the future, such as bracing the ankle at work, gentle stretching to strengthen the joint, or taking a break from sports to allow the body to fully recover.