A sprained ankle is one of the most common sports injuries. In fact, many athletes have sprained their ankle at one point or another in their careers, even if it’s a minor injury from a simple misstep.
The injury typically occurs when the foot rolls inward, stretching or tearing the ligaments on the outside of the ankle—there are other motions that can injure different ligaments in the foot but are far less common. A mild sprain is somewhat painful with some moderate swelling. You may still be able to walk but athletic movements like cutting will be painful and your ankle joint may feel unstable. A severe ankle sprain is quite painful and is accompanied by significant swelling and bruising. Weight bearing movements may also not be possible.
In severe cases, you will need to get checked by your physicians. But mild ankle sprains can often be managed on your own.
Historically, ankle sprains were treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation—what’s referred to as the R.I.C.E. method. Basically, you immobilize and ice the joint to reduce inflammation and ideally help the injury recover faster.
According to Dr. Matt Stevens, physical therapist and owner of Pure Physio (Strongsville, Ohio), it appears that restoring mobility and stability in the ankle after an injury is more effective than the old-school R.I.C.E. method.
So if you happen to have a minor ankle sprain, try these exercises to get back on the field faster. Of course, make sure to see your doctor if the injury is painful and you notice significant swelling and bruising.
Step 1: Articular Rotations
The first step in your ankle sprain recovery is to simply restore some range of motion that was lost after the injury. It’s OK to feel pain at a level of 1-3 on a scale from 1-10, and this should gradually decrease over time as your range of motion improves. You can continue to perform these range of motion exercises throughout your ankle rehab.
How to: Sit on a table or your bed and allow your injured ankle and foot to hang off the bed. Slowly flex and extend your ankle, and then rotate your foot inward (inversion) and outward (eversion). Finally, rotate your ankle clockwise and counterclockwise. If you exceed the 1-3 pain level, then back off your range of motion.
Step 2: Single-Leg Balance
The next step is to add some weight-bearing exercise with the Single-Leg Balance. Standing on one leg might seem elementary but it’s one of the best ways to strengthen the stabilizing muscles in your ankle and feet, which are essential for protecting the joint.
How to: Balance on the foot of your injured ankle with a slightly bent knee. Focus your eyes on one spot to improve your balance. To increase the difficulty, close your eyes.
Sets/Reps: 2-3×30-60 sec. each leg (yes, you need to do this on your non-injured leg as well)
Step 3: Single-Leg Balance on an Unstable Surface
This is the exact same thing as Step 2, but on an unstable surface such as a few towels stacked on top of each other or a balance pad. Again, close your eyes to increase the difficulty.
Step 4: Single-Leg Squat to Cone
The final piece of the puzzle is the Single-Leg Squat to Cone. This continues to improve ankle stability while also challenging the knee and hip.
How to: Balance on the foot of your injured ankle with a cone about a foot in front of you. Bend your hip and knee to squat down with your elevated leg extending behind you. Continue squatting down until you can touch the top of the cone with the hand opposite from your balancing leg. Stand up out of the squat and repeat.
Sets/Reps: 2-3×8-10 each leg