“Aaagh!” That’s the usual exclamation when you have that painful and often sickening feeling when you sprain your ankle (among other unrepeatable expressions). Most folks by the time they reach adulthood have had what is technically called an “inversion” sprain of an ankle. This occurs when, for many reasons, the foot is turned forcefully inward, overstretching and sometimes tearing the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. These ligaments are supposed to prevent these extreme motions and positions, but they can fail under heavy stress such as our body weight. The immediate effects of this injury are obvious: pain at the outside or front of the ankle, swelling, and often bruising. Bearing weight on the injured side can be difficult at the least and at times not possible due to the fact that the ankle may be unstable from the damage to the ligaments. As a result, you limp around for a while, the ankle gets stiff and weak from lack of proper movement, and, I am sorry to say, you become immediately more vulnerable for a recurrent sprain. This increased risk occurs because once those ligaments are over stretched or torn, they never return to 100% of their original strength.
Upon any sprain event, current research supports the use of ice to the injured ankle, elevating it, reducing your weight bearing and seeking medical care as soon as possible. Your physician may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication, a support brace, and likely, physical therapy to begin the process of rehabilitating the ankle and the supporting muscles which can quickly weaken after the injury. The good news is, most of these ankle sprains get better quickly. The key for the long haul is to strengthen your ankle and to make sure you keep those ankle muscles strong and flexible; remember, having one sprain makes you more likely to have a second.
Here are some easy and very effective ways to strengthen those ankles:
1. Standing in front of your kitchen counter, rise up on your toes 20 to 30 times; when you get stronger, try this one foot at a time.
2. While sitting, try to “print” the alphabet using your foot; I know this sounds silly, but it is a great exercise. You will be exercising every possible motion the ankle can perform.
3. Try standing on one foot at a time while brushing your teeth or combing your hair. Or stand on one leg while you toss a ball back and forth with one of your kids. This is the supreme ankle exercise. Face it, this is what we demand of our ankles and legs every day. Remember, even walking is just a series of one-legged stands put together.
Now I know what you are thinking, “ I don’t even want to go there”. Certainly no one wants an ankle injury. So how do you prevent it? Start by doing the 3 exercises listed above. The stronger and more flexible the ankle is, the more protection you will have should you encounter a potential injury situation.
Speaking of which, a good dose of common sense around the home (where most ankle injuries occur) is in order.
1. Keep an eye out for holes in your yard (or in my case the dozen or so craters made by my local army of groundhogs). A little work with dirt and shovel is cheap insurance for injury prevention.
2. Make sure stairways and hallways stay clear of toys and other items that seem to magically appear in these areas that could cause an ankle twist.
3. Proper footwear is essential. Sure, I know it’s hot outside, but wearing flip-flops for yard work is a recipe for disaster. Invest in actual work boots with high tops for work outside. The extra height of the shoe is like a built in brace for the ankle.
Sounds basic doesn’t it? So many of my ankle patients would love to have known this and prevented the weeks of aggravation and discomfort from a sprain.