Your ankles play a hugely important role in your mobility. Not only do your ankles and feet support your body weight, but they allow you to walk, run, play sports, and take part in a range of different activities. But playing such a crucial role can make them susceptible to injuries that can effectively sideline you from activities you enjoy.
The anatomy of your ankle is very complex and consists of more than one joint to allow upward, downward, and sideways movement. It is where the bones of your lower leg (the tibia and fibula) meet with the talus bone in your foot. These bones are held together by ligaments, muscle, cartilage, and tendons – all of which give the ankle its strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
If your ankle gets damaged it can cause significant problems such as limiting your range of motion and can make even the slightest movement excruciatingly painful. Although a lot of ankle injuries happen during exercise or sport, this isn’t always the case. Just walking over an uneven surface can lead to a nasty ankle injury.
The most common injuries to the ankle include:
A sprain is when you overstretch or tear the ligaments in your ankle. Ligaments are the tough bands of tissue that connect the bones in the ankle and give it its stability. The most common causes of ankle sprains are falling, twisting, or trauma to the joint such as from walking or running on uneven surfaces. The resulting damage can cause symptoms including swelling, pain, bruising, limited movement around the joint, and sometimes a popping sensation may be felt at the time of injury.
If it is a light sprain, it should only take a few days to heal and can usually be treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). A serious sprain can mean the ligament has suffered a complete rupture or tear and make any weight-bearing movement impossible. There can also be significant bruising.
Ankle sprains may be classified by the extent of damage to the ligaments. For example, a grade 1 sprain indicates minimal damage, grade 2 indicates a partial tear, and a grade 3 sprain indicates a complete tear of the ligament.
Most often, an ankle sprain will heal without having to resort to surgery. But if the area continues to be re-injured, permanent ankle instability may result and require surgical treatment.
A strain occurs when the muscles or tendons get overstretched or torn. Tendons are the tough cords of fibrous tissue that connect the muscles to the bones. They stabilize and protect the ankle but can become inflamed through injury or overuse of the ankle such as from long distance running. A strain can occur suddenly or over time and can cause similar symptoms to a sprain such as pain, swelling, bruising, and limited movement. Strains also may involve tenderness to the touch, muscle weakness, spasms, and cramping.
A broken (or fractured) ankle describes a break in one or more of the bones that make up the ankle joint. Ankle fractures often occur when severe force is applied to the ankle such as when jumping from a significant height, or in a sporting injury or car accident. Bone fractures can also happen with a severe twist or roll of the ankle.
Simple fractures are sometimes be mistaken for ankle sprains because both can result in similar signs and symptoms such as pain (although not always felt in the exact area of the fracture), bruising, swelling, stiffness, and in severe cases you may see obvious deformity of bone around the ankle. Depending on the severity of the fracture, a broken ankle can take a long time to heal, with or without surgery. Fractures can also increase the likelihood of developing arthritis in the affected joint.
Preventing Ankle Injuries
It can be difficult to prevent ankle injuries, but there are a few things that can help:
- Strengthen muscles around the joint with exercises
- Warm up before exercising to increase your range of movement, which can help prevent sprains and strains.
- Wear suitable footwear to provide support and stability. Shoes with a decent grip on the bottom can help prevent slips and falls that lead to injuries like a fractured ankle.
- Be aware of your environment: check for obstacles, uneven or slippery surfaces, and other walking hazards.