Ankle rolls and sprains are unwelcome surprises: You step off an unexpected curb, have an unsteady moment on a hiking trail, or move the wrong way during a sporting activity and are suddenly hobbled. Under the surface, the ligaments that connect the bones of your ankle, leg, and foot have been stretched beyond their limits or even torn.
Your throbbing ankle may bother you for a few minutes to days in the case of a minor roll, or for weeks or months in the case of a sprain that causes more severe stretching or tearing. Worse, your injury may leave your ankle chronically unstable, making you vulnerable to more unpleasant surprises and a less active future.
The good news is that you can take steps to prevent these common injuries. Prevention is especially crucial for people who have rolled or sprained their ankles in the past. The American Physical Therapy Association estimates that about three-quarters of people who injure their ankle once will do it again. Prevention includes taping the ankle or wearing a brace when you exercise, especially soon after a sprain. Proper footwear, such as hiking boots for challenging trails and well-designed walking and running shoes, also can make a difference.
But the key to prevention is developing your balance along with strength and flexibility in your feet and ankles. That way you will be more likely to keep your footing when you encounter that next twisting trail or ill-placed curb.
If your ankles have become unstable and injury-prone, or even if your initial injury isn’t improved in a few days, ask your primary care physician to refer you to a physical therapist (PT), or seek one out directly if your insurance doesn’t require a referral. A PT can help you develop an individual rehabilitation and prevention program, sometimes in just a few visits. In the meantime, here are a few exercises anyone can try:
Single-foot stand. Stand on one foot and lift the other behind you, trying to maintain your balance. If needed, hold on to a counter or chair back for support. See if you can balance for a few seconds, and then build your way toward 30 seconds and one minute. Once you gain some mastery, try the same exercise with your eyes closed: It’s much harder without visual cues.
Pillow balance. Do the same single-foot balancing exercise while standing on a pillow, keeping a counter or chair back nearby for support. Expect your foot to wobble as you try to correct your balance and build up your time on one foot. If you can get up to one minute with your eyes open, try it with your eyes closed.
Single-leg half-circle taps. Place six dots (stickers, coins, or pieces of paper) in a half-circle 30 inches from the center of your standing point. Now stand on one leg and slowly touch each dot with the other foot. Repeat on the opposite side. To increase the difficulty, do the exercise while standing on a pillow. Work on the exercise for 30 to 60 seconds, once or twice a day.
Standing calf stretch. Stand facing a wall, countertop, or sturdy chair back. Put your hands on the surface in front of you for support. Place one ankle about one step back and the other foot forward. Keeping your back heel flat on the floor, slowly bend the knee of your front leg until you feel a mild to moderate stretch in the back calf. This should not create discomfort in the front of your ankle. Repeat three times, holding for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat the exercise.
Heel raise. Once again, stand with your hands resting against a wall, a countertop, or a chair back for support. With your feet shoulder-width apart, slowly rise on your toes and come back down. Start with about 10 repetitions, increasing the number as the exercise gets easier. Aim to do 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions every few days as long as the exercise is pain-free.