Is it really “just” a sprained ankle?

Ankle sprains occur so frequently that a common reaction is to hobble around and deflect attention from it because, it’s “just” an ankle sprain. In reality, an ankle sprain is just as much of an injury as any other and needs attention and proper rehabilitation. When an ankle is “rolled,” known as an inversion sprain, the ligaments on the lateral ankle are overstretched, damaged and sometimes even torn. It’s not “just” an ankle sprain!

Our body has the incredible ability to heal; many will testify that eventually an ankle sprain feels normal. So normal that you forget about it until it happens again. Recurrent ankle sprains are very common because, without rehabilitation, ligament integrity remains compromised and movement patterns remain dysfunctional. What exactly goes wrong? Let us list the ways!

1. When a ligament is sprained, its fibers are damaged. The healing process brings in new cells to help the injured ligament repair; however, these new fibers will lay down on the injured area in a cluttered and disorganized pattern, leaving the ligament weak and vulnerable to re-injury. These new cells do not naturally turn into smooth and strong tissue. Thankfully, stretching and manual therapy helps re-organize the new cells, increasing the strength of the ligament.

2. After any injury the ankle joints stiffen around it, altering the way you stand, walk, run, pivot, and jump. Most of the time this isn’t detectable to you, but over time these small changes lead to asymmetrical wear and tear in the ankle, knee, hip and lower back. In fact, research indicates that an ankle sprain increases the likelihood of developing arthritis in the hip.

3. Following an ankle sprain, surrounding muscles quickly weaken and atrophy. The muscles around the knee, hip, and lower back can also be impacted causing weakness throughout the entire lower extremity. Affected muscles don’t return to pre-injury strength without little hard work! Without re-strengthening the muscles, you are more vulnerable to re-injury and more likely to sustain other injury areas due to compensations.

4. Lastly, proprioception of the ankle, knee, and hip joints is diminished following injury. Proprioception is a joint’s ability to know where it is in space. Poor proprioception of the ankle presents as decreased balance and is very common following ankle sprain.

As you can see, an ankle sprain should not be underestimated. The effects of this “simple” injury do not resolve on their own and frequently lead to additional issues and injuries down the road. A little rehabilitation goes a long way, restoring normal mobility, gait, strength, and proprioception. If you have a history of ankle sprains, try these exercises and compare with the uninjured side. It might surprise you that there are deficits that need attention.

Single Leg Balance: Try balancing on one leg and compare side to side. Does it feel similar? If so, try turning your head, looking over one shoulder and then the other. How about if you close your eyes?

Heel Raise: When you rise up onto your toes, does it feel the same on both sides? How about if you try it on one leg at a time? Do you feel a pinch somewhere in the ankle, or is one side easier than the other?