For athletes and other activity enthusiasts, a sprained ankle is one of the most common injuries experienced. Not even two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry is immune from this especially irritating injury. The ACSM estimates that 25,000 Americans suffer from an ankle sprain each day, amounting to almost half of all sports injuries! Ankle sprains occur when one or more ligaments in the ankle tears, usually as a result of the ankle rolling beyond its normal range of motion or twisting in an awkward way. Even though the ankle sprain is a common injury, strengthening the body correctly is necessary to avoid long-term problems that may carry on if the right treatment is not sought out. Steph Curry would probably tell you himself, even a mild ankle sprain can carry symptoms and deficits that you don’t realize, increasing your risk of reinjury. One of the biggest misconceptions about ankle injuries is that “rest cures all” (wouldn’t that be nice?) but unfortunately it’s not that simple. The good news is that working with a physical therapist can help to identify these areas of weakness and get you back to your favorite activities safely.
So how do you know if you have a sprained ankle and what can you do about it? If you’ve injured your ankle and experience symptoms of pain, swelling, bruising, or limited range of motion, you may be suffering from a sprain. If you’re unable to put any weight on your ankle at all, it may mean the sprain is severe or it could be a sign of a more serious injury. Seeking treatment within 1-2 days is the best way to help the healing process move along most efficiently. Working with a physical therapist can help you properly strengthen your ankle joint and calf muscles to quicken your recovery time, reduce pain, and decrease the risk of reinjury.
Blame It On the Sprain
When you experience an ankle sprain you can come directly to a physical therapist, where they’ll examine your ankle to find the source of pain and test your strength, flexibility, and the amount of laxity in your ankle ligament(s). Once they’ve done the necessary clinical tests to determine the severity of your injury, your ankle sprain will be classified in one of three categories:
- Grade 1 (mild): Symptoms of mild pain or swelling.
- Grade 2 (moderate): Symptoms of moderate pain and swelling, bruising, stiffness, possible limp
- Grade 3 (complete tear): Severe sprain, a tear where the ligament is totally ruptured. Should be treated with high caution as surgery is sometimes required.
While recovery time will vary based on the severity of the sprain—anywhere from a few weeks to a few months—your physical therapist will pinpoint the problem areas and provide a plan to allow your body to recover most effectively.
Restore Ankle Joint Range of Motion With Manual Therapy
During your physical therapy treatment for ankle injury, your physical therapist will restore normal joint mechanics and treat soft tissue through manual therapy: skilled, hands-on techniques that help to reduce inflammation and muscle tightness, address ankle stiffness, improve range of motion, and minimize pain. The benefits of manual therapy can’t be achieved through just regular exercise so make sure your physical therapist incorporates this treatment technique as part of your ankle physical therapy program.
Retraining Your Balance
In addition to improving the strength of your ankle muscles, your physical therapist will work on strengthening your hip and core as they are crucial to maintaining proper balance. The whole body plays a role in ankle strength and weak hip and core muscles negatively affect the way your legs, ankles, and feet interact as you move. If the muscles aren’t strong, then they’re not stable and the risk of re-injury is much higher. Decreased hip strength actually increases your chance of injury from 12% to 27%. Your physical therapist will look to make sure you can keep your balance and that you maintain proper control while also assessing your leg alignment. They’ll look at the intrinsic foot muscles, small muscles in the bottom of the foot which are inhibited during a sprain, to make sure that your feet are relaxed and not gripping the ground with your toes. Your treatment may also address:
- Static Balance: Single leg stance exercise, maintaining stability
- Dynamic Balance: Exercises incorporating full body movement, challenging the system by catching and throwing balls, using kettle bells and unstable surfaces
- Functional Balance: Single leg squats with/without load
It’s an unfortunate truth that once a person suffers an ankle sprain, they are more likely to injure that ankle again. By working with a physical therapist, you can rehabilitate your present injury, allowing your body to properly strengthen and heal, while also building the skills necessary to prevent future injury.