The lower the location of a joint in the body, the more weight it’s responsible for supporting. The ankles, then, have the tall task of supporting the entire body, and this is one of the main reasons they are injured so frequently. Ankle sprains are the most common injury seen in the athletic population, and they have the power to throw a wrench in the spokes of any active person’s training. They can also lead to a long-term cycle of re-injury, but all this can be avoided with a physical therapy program.
If you play sports, there’s a fairly strong chance you will sprain your ankle at some point. Ankle sprains account for up to 45% of all sports injuries, and approximately 25,000 people sprain their ankle every day in the U.S. The sport you play will also affect your odds, as the majority of sprains (41%) occur in basketball, followed by football and then soccer. This mainly has to do with the movements that are common in each sport, and lots of jumping and cutting significantly increases the risk for ankle sprains.
Ankle sprains involve the ligaments of the ankle joint, which are flexible bands of tissue that connect one bone to another. Ligaments are elastic and can be stretched to a certain length and then return to their original position, but they have a limit. When any of the ligaments in the ankle is stretched beyond its maximum range of motion, damage will occur and result in an ankle sprain. Symptoms will vary depending on the severity of the sprain, but usually include some—or all—of the following:
If you do experience an ankle sprain, the prognosis is usually quite good, and most people can get back to sports or training within about 4-6 weeks; however, the risk of a condition called chronic ankle instability (CAI) increases significantly after the first sprain. This is why proper treatment from a physical therapist is necessary for a full recovery and to reduce your chances of experiencing another ankle sprain in the future. Treatment programs are always individualized, but typically consist of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation), stretching and strengthening exercises, and balance and functional training.
Physical therapy is recommended for both initial ankle sprains and for patients that continue to sprain their ankles repeatedly, and research has shown that it’s effective in both cases. The effectiveness of physical therapy and exercises was supported in a recent review of studies that concluded as follows:
For the treatment of acute ankle sprain, there is strong evidence for non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and early mobilization, with moderate evidence supporting exercise and manual therapy techniques, for pain, swelling and function. Exercise therapy and bracing are supported in the prevention of CAI.
While it might sound like a single ankle sprain means a long-term series of problems, this is more likely to be the case if the injury is not managed properly from the start. This is why you should see a physical therapist first and fast after your first ankle sprain to reduce your chances of future injury.