Chronic Ankle Instability: The Danger of Repeated Ankle Sprains

A sprained ankle occurs when a sudden movement stretches the ligaments beyond their “normal” range of motion. Chronic ankle instability is a condition that may occur when the sprain fails to heal properly. It also strikes those who repeatedly sprain their ankle.

In this post, we look at the types of ankle sprains, what causes them, and how you can prevent them. We also discuss the dangers of repeated ankle sprains and why it’s so important to see a podiatrist.

What Is an Ankle Sprain?

Ankle sprains occur when a movement like turning or twisting your ankle damages one or more of the ligaments. Sprains are categorized according to the extent of damage to said ligament.
  • Grade I: The ligament stretches without tearing
  • Grade II: The ligament tears partway
  • Grade III: The ligament tears completely through

Sprains are further categorized by where they occur on the ankle. The most common type is the inversion ankle sprain. It occurs when the foot turns inward, stretching the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. You feel pain from this type of sprain on the outer ankle.

Damage to the inner ligaments cause an eversion ankle sprain, which occurs when the foot twists or turns outward. You feel this pain on the inside of your ankle.

Illustration of lateral ankle sprain

What Is Chronic Ankle Instability?

Father and daughter playing tennisChronic ankle instability occurs as a weakness of the outer, or lateral, side of the ankle. It is usually the result of repeated inversion ankle sprains. Patients who have chronic ankle instability are prone to the outer ankle giving way or turning, even when just standing.

The most common causes of chronic ankle instability are an ankle sprain that does not heal properly and repeated ankle sprains.

And, while repeated sprains cause this instability, the condition also increases risk of repeated ankle sprains. And, of course, every sprain further damages and weakens the ligaments, worsening the condition and creating a nasty cycle.

Ankle Sprain Risk Factors & Prevention

Sprained ankles are usually the result of an awkward landing that causes your ankle to twist or turn unnaturally. Even though the injury is the result of an accident, certain activities increase your risk. Which means that you can also take steps to reduce your risk of sprain.

  • Being out of shape: Lack of strength and flexibility make you more sustainable to a host of injuries, including sprains. Talk to your doctor about exercises to improve balance, flexibility, strength, and stability.
  • History of ankle injuries: Previous sprains and other ankle injuries weaken the tissues. Wearing a support brace or taping the ankle, particularly before physical activity, reduces your risk of future injury. You should also make sure your ankle heals completely before resuming your normal activities.
  • Playing sports: Activities with a lot of running, jumping, and pivoting raise your risk of ankle sprain. You can prevent injury by warming up and not pushing yourself too far beyond your current abilities.
  • Uneven surfaces: Walking or running on poor field conditions, rocky ground, brick walkways, and more raises your risk. The best prevention here is practicing extra care when walking or running on uneven ground.
  • Wearing improper shoes: One of the fastest ways to increase your risk of injury is to wear shoes that don't support your feet or are incorrect for your activity. The solution here is simple: Invest in high-quality shoes that offer ample cushioning and support. Also, avoid high heels as much as possible. They either cause or exacerbate a variety of foot conditions.

Since sprains are the leading cause of chronic ankle instability, you want to do everything you can to reduce your risk of sprain.

Why You Should Visit a Podiatrist for Ankle Sprains

The most common treatment for ankle sprains is rest, ice, compression, and elevation, commonly referred to as RICE. The simplicity of the treatment is why many people choose self-care over treatment from a podiatrist.

Unfortunately, this often leads to complications and a failure to heal properly. Complications may include:

  • Chronic ankle instability
  • Chronic pain
  • Increased risk of arthritis in the ankle

When you visit a podiatrist to treat a sprained ankle, they conduct a full examination to determine the extent of damage to the ligament. This includes finding points of tenderness and testing range of motion in the affected ankle.

Your podiatrist may also order diagnostic imaging such as x-rays or an MRI. In addition to determining whether there’s any tearing to the ligament, your doctor is looking for broken bones.

How to Prepare for Your Appointment

Patients often feel nervous when talking to their doctor. That’s why we recommend creating a list of pertinent information and questions you’d like to ask.

This includes:

  • A detailed list of your symptoms, i.e. pain, swelling, bruising, instability, tenderness, etc.
  • A list of previous foot and ankle injuries
  • Details about your recent injury, including how it happened, where it hurts, which way the ankle turned, and whether your foot can bear your weight
  • Treatment received for previous injuries and whether it was effective

Finally, create a list of all prescription and over-the-counter medications you take, including dosage. Your list should include supplements and vitamins.

Chronic Ankle Instability Treatment

At Phoenician Foot & Ankle, our focus is on conservative care whenever possible. Treatment options vary according to the severity of the issue and your current level of activity.

Nonsurgical treatment may include:

  • Ankle braces to help support the ankle, which helps prevent turning and future sprains.
  • Over-the-counter medications to manage pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy to help improve range of motion, balance, and strength in the ankle. This treatment may also include instruction designed to help you participate in your favorite sports without injury.
Conditions that fail to respond to conservative treatment may require surgical intervention. Typically, this means repairing the damaged ligaments to improve stability. Options vary according to your unique situation. If you suffer from repeated ankle sprains, contact Phoenician Foot & Ankle Specialists. We’ll get you back on your feet in no time.
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