When I treat a patient after an ankle sprain, I am never surprised to find out that this may not be the first time they sprained their ankle. I often have younger athletes in the clinic after their second or third ankle sprain and find out that they never had any formal treatment after the first one. So why are recurring ankle sprains so common and how can we prevent them?
The ankles are one of the most commonly injured body parts in sports, with ankle sprains being the most common diagnosis. The ankle is not a muscular joint and is supported mostly by ligaments. Spraining the ligaments creates a quick stretch and possible tearing of these ligaments. Although bracing and taping strategies can help the tissues heal faster, there often remains some underlying weakness through the joint.
This lasting weakness through the joint may not be just from the ankle. Some of it could be from your central nervous system, or the brain. Your ligaments contain neural receptors that send information to your brain. When you sprain a ligament, you damage some of these receptors. Your brain then receives less information about how your foot is positioned on the ground. This leads to more instability and a greater likelihood of re-injuring yourself.
So, you ask, what can be done about this and how can I strengthen my ankle? Growing research is showing that the second (or third or fourth) ankle sprains could be prevented with some simple balance training. Physical therapy is a great way to improve your balance and coordination by performing simple standing balance activities using equipment such as foam pads, balance beams, or BOSU balls. Sometimes, no fancy equipment is necessary. Simply standing on one leg or in a tandem stance (heel to toe) will challenge your balance. For younger athletes, a sport specific balance training program would be recommended. A physical therapist or athletic trainer can provide specific exercises that will target key moves and positions of a particular sport. Currently in the research, there is not a set length of time or number of repetitions that must be performed to improve balance. However, any balance training program will help to lessen your risk of re-injury.
If you have a history of ankle sprains, whether multiple or just one, consider doing some balance training to help reduce your ankle instability.
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