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Ankle Injury Rehabilitation

Exercises for Treating an Injured Ankle


Updated June 06, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Almost everyone has experienced an ankle injury, from a mild strain to major ligament damage.  Most sports participants will remember a time when they sprained their ankles.  Once the injury has occurred, patients want to recover as quickly as possible.  There's no clear consensus on exactly how to recover from an ankle injury, but there are some common themes.  Learn about the basic steps of ankle injury rehabilitation and when you can resume your normal activities.

1. Range of Motion Exercises

Photo © Jeannot Olivet

The first step toward recovery is to regain normal ankle mobility. Mobility can be limited by pain and swelling; therefore, in order to effectively treat restricted motion, try to address pain and swelling. After ankle injuries, range-of-motion activity should start as soon as possible. Rarely do injuries require immobilization (as in a cast or boot), since most injuries can be treated with early motion exercises. Check with your doctor to determine when it's okay to start motion activities.

The most frequently recommended active-motion activity is to "write" the alphabet in space with your big toe. Start with printing the alphabet, then try cursive. This simple activity will move your foot through all the basic ankle motions.

2. Strengthening Exercises

Once motion has been achieved and swelling and pain are reduced, you should start strengthening the ankle. Following an injury such as a sprain, the ankle will be weak and susceptible to reinjury. Ankle-strengthening exercises can help prevent reinjury and return you to normal activities.

Basic strengthening activities include work with resistance bands, toe raises and lunges. Working with a physical therapist is often beneficial to allow the therapist to target specific muscles that may have been injured.

3. Proprioceptive Training

ankle rehab board
Photo © www.iStockPhoto.com

Proprioception is the word used to describe your body's ability to sense the position of a joint.  For example, when you close your eyes, you can feel the position of your body without necessarily looking to see the position of your body.  Proprioception also helps control the position of your body.  Good proprioceptive training can help prevent your ankle from getting into positions where sprains and injuries are more likely.

4. Sport-Specific Activities

Photo © Mikkel William Nielsen

The final stage of recovery from an ankle injury is to perform specific activities that mimic movements of your chosen sport. This may include drills aimed at cutting, pivoting or jumping. It is important to perform these activities in a simulated environment before returning to your normal sports activities.

When you perform sport-specific drills, your body can prepare for the activity, the next cut or pivot, rather than having to suddenly react to an in-game event. These exercises allow your body to achieve the last stage of rehabilitation with less risk of re-injury. Unfortunately, many athletes neglect this step and return to sports too soon. This can have serious implications if the injury is not completely healed and the body is not ready for sports.

5. Return to Full Activities

While there is no clear consensus on the issue, most physicians agree that full activities can resume once the risk of re-injuring your ankle falls to what it was before the injury. In general, try to achieve the following goals before returning to your normal sports routine:

  • No more swelling
  • Normal joint motion
  • Normal joint strength

A team trainer or physician should ensure that any athlete is ready to return to his or her sporting activities.

6. Sources

Wall J. "Return-to-Play Criteria Following Sports Injury" Clin. Sports Med. Vol 29, No 1 , Pg 169-175, Jan 2010.

Maffulli N and Ferran NA. "Management of Acute and Chronic Ankle Instability" J. Am. Acad. Orthop. Surg., October 2008; 16: 608 - 615.

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