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Best Stretches for a Sprained Ankle

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT January 16, 2020 0 Comments

Woman stretching her leg

A sprained ankle can leave your entire body feeling stiff and sore. Once you’re cleared by your doctor or physical therapist, stretches for a sprained ankle are a great way to kickstart your recovery process. Continue reading to find easy at-home stretches you can start right away.

Range-of-Motion Stretching Exercises

One of the biggest benefits of stretching is to restore full range of motion to the foot and ankle to allow them to properly function with daily tasks. Try these simple stretches:

Towel Scrunches

Sit comfortably in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. Place a towel flat on the floor underneath your feet, with the majority of the towel in front of the toes. You will then scrunch all the toes up together as you attempt to pull the towel closer to you (bunching the towel under your feet). This will build strength and coordination of your intrinsic foot muscles responsible for arch control (important for injury prevention) while restoring range of motion to any toes that feel stiff from your injury.

Complete 10-15 repetitions, for 2-3 sets.  You can also extend your toes to push the towel away and back to the original towel position if you choose (working the top of the foot in this direction).  

Towel Calf Stretch

Sit on the floor or a sturdy surface with the ankle you want to stretch straight out in front of you. Place the middle of a towel or stretching strap around the ball of your foot, holding each end securely with your hands. Keeping the knee straight, gently pull the entire foot up toward your shin until you feel a tolerable stretch in the Achilles and calf muscle.

Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds, 2-3 times. Don’t force the stretch if there is any pain and make sure you stay relaxed.

Ankle Dorsiflexion

The simplest way to start increasing ankle dorsiflexion range of motion is to sit comfortably and start gently moving the entire ankle back and forth (toward the shin and back). If this is too painful at first, you can even use your hand to do this motion completely passively.

Then, when you’re ready to start bearing weight you can use your body weight to push your ankle dorsiflexion range of motion even further. Find a small step or ledge to stand on with the ball of your foot on the edge of it. You will then let your heel move down toward the floor as your ankle bends. Once you feel a comfortable stretch, stop and hold the position. Start with the ankle in a relatively straight position (toes in line with your shin). Then progress to doing the stretch again with the toes pointed slightly out, and then slightly in.

Hold each position 30-60 seconds, 2-3 times. Be slow and controlled.

Plantar Flexion

Sit on the ground or in a chair with the affected ankle brought toward you (the outside of your shin will be resting on your knee). You will then use your opposite hand to gently pull on your ankle into a plantarflexed position (toes pointed). For an extra stretch, use your hand to curl the toes under as you pull too.

Hold 5 seconds, repeating 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.  

Rhythmic Range of Motion

Instead of focusing on one movement at a time, you can also move the ankle rhythmically back and forth between dorsiflexion and plantarflexion. You can do this in sitting and simply move the ankle freely or use your hand to guide the movements. If you want to do it in standing, consider using an ankle rocker. You will simply place your foot in the rocker and slowly move forward and backwards.

Repeat each motion 15-20 times, for 2-3 sets. If you are feeling particularly sore in one are, you can also hold that position for 1-2 minutes.

Ankle Inversion and Eversion

The easiest and least invasive way to start ankle inversion and eversion is to sit in a position that freely allows the ankle to move. You will simply work the lateral range of motion in the ankle, bringing the foot and toes inward as far as possible and then as far out as possible (toward the inner shin/thigh and then outer shin/thigh). If this is too painful, you can also use your hand to passively do the motion.

When you are able to comfortably put weight through your foot, you can progress to doing it in standing for a more functional movement (since we all have to stand after all). This will help prep the ankle for a return to walking on uneven and/or soft surfaces. You will be moving your ankle into the position that originally caused your injury, so proceed slowly and cautiously. You should feel comfortable with the move. First, lift the inner foot up off the ground as far as you can (exaggerating your arch), bringing all the weight of your body onto the outside edge of your foot. Then, lift the outer edge of the foot off the ground as your knees come closer together (the movement will be very small).

Hold each position 3-5 seconds, 10 times, for 2-3 sets. You can choose to slowly alternate between the two positions or focus on one at a time.

Balance and Control Stretches

Balance and control stretches can increase flexibility in the ankle while also improving coordination. 

“Alphabet” Tracing

Sit in a position so that your foot is free (legs crossed or long sitting with the foot on the edge of a bed or plinth). Simply start tracing an imaginary “alphabet” with your toes to actively move the foot and ankle through various positions.

Move your ankle continuously for 1-2 minutes. You can mix it up with spelling certain words, numbers, etc.

Tree Pose

This a great full body move that will train your ankle to work in coordination with the rest of your body, particularly your core. Start by shifting your weight onto the foot that you will be balancing on. Then, lift the other leg as you bend the knee and bring it to about hip height. Next, open the hip, bringing the knee away from your midline as far as possible. You will then place the bottom of your foot on your grounded leg (just not directly on the knee, above or below is fine). Once you get in this position, stay balanced via deep breathing, focusing on a focal point, and tightening the stomach muscles.

Hold 30-60 seconds, 2-3 times on each leg. You can progress to standing on softer surfaces to further challenge your balance.

Dynamic Activity Based Stretching

As you feel ready to get back to high level activities, there are a lot of everyday moves that you can do to both strengthen and stretch at the same time. These include deep squats, lunges, and stair training. These are great functional ways to maximize ankle health while incorporating adequate coordination and strength of the entire body.

For an added challenge, try these movements using a balance trainer.

How Stretches for a Sprained Ankle Help

Initially, you will sustain a period of rest for your injured ankle to heal, anywhere from a few hours to several weeks depending on the severity of the injury. During this time, lack of use, pain and swelling will make the ankle range of motion you need for normal daily activities feel stiff and awkward. Getting started on a gentle stretching regime as soon as possible will prevent unnecessary stiffness that will affect your ability to fully return to your normal routine. Paired with good strengthening exercises, a stretching program promotes circulation and relaxation while helping your ankle prepare for weight bearing activities. Ultimately, you will build the confidence you need to properly use it.

Strengthening Exercies for a Sprained Ankle

When Should Ankles Stretches be Initiated?

Gentle range of motion exercises in supported positions (not weight bearing) should be started as soon as possible to prevent stagnancy and excessive stiffness. This is generally right away unless the ankle has developed severe instability that requires complete rest.  For exercises that involve standing with weight through your ankle, you can start them when you can tolerate weight bearing without a significant increase in pain or feelings of instability. Some discomfort is expected, but if your pain rapidly gets worse or becomes moderate to severe it means you are doing too much too soon. 

How Often Should I Stretch?

Start slow with your stretches to gauge what you can tolerate each day and week. Initially, start with a few gentle stretches everyday. You can add more dynamic stretching (bearing weight) as tolerated with the goal of having a 10-30 minute regime that you complete most days of the week (4-6 times per week is ideal). As you add more strengthening to your home program, you may find you need fewer stretches. Pay attention to how your ankle is responding and modify or progress your stretches when possible.

Not sure where to start? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your doctor can make recommendations. Additionally, a physical therapist can give you advice and help you specifically build and adjust your program to optimize your recovery.

The Safe Way to Stretch an Ankle Sprain

Like any program you complete, simply use your intuition and body awareness to decide what’s best for you. When recovering from this type of injury, discomfort is expected as you push yourself to regain your strength, coordination, and flexibility. If your pain is severe or you have increased symptoms more than 24 hours, consider backing off. This will prevent further setbacks or even a re-injury.

How to Prevent Ankle Sprains

If you experience any changes in your symptoms, such as increased pain, decreased quality of life, weakness, tingling, numbness or anything else of concern, talk to a trusted medical professional immediately.

Maximizing Your Stretching Routine

Since stretching can be uncomfortable at first. Consider adding other treatment options to your daily routine to help you tolerate your recovery better. These options may include, ice, heat, massage, and wrapping the ankle.

How to Wrap a Sprained Ankle

Ice or Heat for an Ankle Sprain

Sprained Ankle Massage

How to Reduce Swelling for an Ankle Sprain


Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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