Your ankles are the foundation of your body, and chronic ankle instability can interfere with your life. Address ankle instability by strengthening the supporting muscles and ligaments and by finding a good ankle brace. Keep reading to learn about the causes and symptoms of ankle instability, plus easy treatments to keep you on your feet.
Ankle instability involves a weakness in your ankle that causes it to buckle easily. Any structure supporting the joint could be the culprit of ankle instability—bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles all play a part in stabilizing the ankle.
The most common ankle injury is an inversion sprain, which often leads to lateral ankle instability. This causes this area to be overstretched or damaged and affects the balance of your muscle strength on each side of your joint. This imbalance causes further stress on your ankle during walking, standing, and activity.
Types of Ankle Instability
There are three main types of ankle instability. The type of injury determines the most effective treatment, so it’s important to seek a professional diagnosis.
1. Mechanical Ankle Instability
Mechanical instability is caused by a laxity or hypermobility in your ankle joint. Your ligaments become overstretched, and their range or motion exceeds what is healthy for your ankle.
2. Functional Ankle Instability
Functional instability is characterized by muscle weakness, postural difficulties, proprioception problems (awareness of your body’s position), and faulty communication between your nerves and the muscles that control your ankle. This causes the sensation of your ankle giving way when you put weight on your leg.
3. Chronic Ankle Instability
Ankle instability becomes a chronic condition after six months of experiencing symptoms, or after multiple injuries to the same ankle. Once you have injured your ankle, it becomes difficult for the joint to return to normal, but allowing it to heal properly is crucial.
Causes of Ankle Instability
Weakness in the surrounding muscles is often the culprit of ankle instability. Injured peroneal muscles, calves, or tibialis anterior and posterior muscles take joints out of alignment.
An injury also affects your body’s mechanoreceptors—sense organs that give your nervous system feedback on tension, pressure, and your body’s position.
Here is a list of possible causes of your chronic ankle instability:
Ankle sprain and lateral ankle instability
Stretching, rupture, or tear of ligaments or tendons
Ankle instability symptoms range from mildly uncomfortable to severe. Symptoms often worsen after long periods of activity.
Recurrent lateral ankle sprain
Stiffness and swelling
Pain and discomfort
Trouble walking on uneven ground
Inability to put weight on foot
Ankle Instability Treatment
Ankle instability treatment helps you regain your ankle’s strength and range of motion. The goal is to maintain your ankle in a neutral position and, eventually, to allow you to put weight on each leg equally without experiencing pain or discomfort.
Ankle Instability Exercises
Strengthening exercises are vital to restoring the stability of your ankle. Listen to your body; stop what you are doing if it is too painful or doesn’t feel right to you. If your chronic ankle instability is severe, see a physical therapist.
Step 1: Place small objects or a towel on the ground in front of you.
Step 2: Pick up the objects by curling your toes.
Step 3: Continue until you feel tension.
This exercise strengthens the arch of your foot and the tendons and ligaments of your ankle.
Seated Calf Raises
Step 1: Sit in a chair with your feet facing forward.
Step 2: Slowly raise your heels while leaving your toes on the ground.
Step 3: Continue until you feel the first sign of fatigue.
After your ankle adjusts to this exercise, try a standing calf raise. Use the wall or a chair for support, if needed. Both exercises build stability by strengthening your calves and Achilles tendons.
Chronic Ankle Instability Braces
Prevent further damage with an ankle brace. A brace stabilizes the joint, reduces swelling and pain, and improves circulation. Look for an ankle brace that is comfortable and easy to adjust, and discuss the best orthotics options with your doctor. Below are a few common types of braces you’ll want to consider.
Wraparound braces are fully adjustable, so they provide the perfect amount of compression and support. ( See Product)
A compression brace is made of elastic or neoprene and works well with mild ankle injuries and tendonitis. It improves your ankle stability and balance, and it reduces swelling while allowing your joint plenty of mobility.
Compression braces provide light support to prevent injury or re-injury. ( See Product)
Lace-up braces are typically recommended for a moderate ankle instability. Lace-up braces offer adjustable tightness and full support to limit dangerous movement. They are lightweight and comfortable.
Rigid braces use hard plastic on each side of your ankle. A rigid brace resists more lateral movement and supplies a decent amount of compression.
Massage therapy speeds the healing process by promoting circulation in the muscles around your ankle. It aids muscle balance by alleviating the tension in this area. Use massage rollers to give yourself a great massage at home.
Massage roller balls are portable and effective for targeting muscle knots. ( See Product)
Taking anti-inflammatory medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, reduce the swelling that exacerbates chronic ankle instability, while managing pain.
Surgical Treatment of Chronic Ankle Instability
The goal of ankle instability surgery is to return the placement, length, and tightness of the injured ligaments back to normal. Surgery is a last resort. Weigh the pros and cons with your doctor before undertaking a surgical procedure.
This procedure returns the ankle to its proper alignment by shortening the affected ligaments. It uses tendon grafts to repair damaged structures. It is the simplest surgical option and has an 80% success rate.
This technique also utilizes tendon grafts. However, the grafts do not follow the same placement as your ligaments. There are two tendon graft techniques, each with the possibility of complications, because the tendons are obtained from your peroneal brevis tendon, which helps stabilize the lateral leg.
Instability Surgery Recovery Time
Directly following surgery, you must use crutches or a scooter to keep from putting weight on your healing ankle.
A knee scooter is a convenient alternative to crutches and can be much easier to maneuver. ( See Product)
Two weeks following surgery, you will wear a boot or cast for two to four weeks. Most patients return to activities after twelve weeks.
A post-op boot protects your fragile ankle after surgery, ensuring a safe recovery. ( See Product)
How to Prevent Chronic Ankle Instability
Many instances of chronic ankle instability can be avoided by allowing your body to heal correctly. Follow these steps to address ankle instability and keep it from becoming a long-term issue.
The time directly following an injury is the most important part of the recovery process. Follow the RICE method immediately after injury.
Take it easy during the first three days after injury. Too much activity during the first stages of healing aggravates your ankle and promotes swelling and inflammation.
Use an ice pack to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. For the first 48 to 72 hours, ice your ankle every couple hours for 15 to 20 minutes.
Use compression to stabilize your ankle and to reduce swelling. Compress your ankle with a bandage or a compression sleeve, but be careful not to cut off circulation.
Elevating your leg after an ankle injury reduces swelling. Prop your ankle above the level of your heart as often as possible during the first days following injury.
Strengthen your Ankles
Keeping the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that surround your muscles strong is the best way to prevent chronic ankle instability. Implement a regular strength training regimen to build and maintain muscular strength. Rest after an injury is important, but too much rest weakens the area. Find the right balance between rest and activity, and visit your physical therapist if you need help.
Improve Your Ankle Instability
Now that you know what causes ankle instability and how to treat it, you can take steps to improve your joint health and prevent ankle instability from becoming chronic. Find the right brace to support your ankle, keep your ankles strong to prevent future injuries, and balance rest and activity to build stability in your joint.
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