Coping with Ankle Sprains
How to prevent and treat ankle sprains
Illustration by Steve Graepel
You’re cruising along a beautiful singletrack, enjoying your elevated heart rate and a great view, when suddenly you lose your footing. Ouch! Along most trail runners’ favorite routes lie such potentially ankle-turning hazards as roots, rocks and quick descents. A brief moment of not paying attention to where you’re stepping is all it takes to disrupt the ankle’s delicate balance. Even worse, injured ankles remain weakened for an average of six months.
Up to 80 percent of all ankle sprains stem from previous injuries. Athletes who have an injury-weakened ankle joint are about 10 times as likely to suffer a repeat injury than those who don’t. Twelve to 20 percent of all sports injuries are ankle sprains.
The ankle’s physiology is one reason why inversion injuries are so common. The inside of the ankle is much more stable than the outside, especially when the toe is pointed (plantar flexed). The good news is that you can quickly and easily determine if your ankles are weak, and take precautions to keep them healthy.
ARE YOU AT RISK?
According to head athletic trainer at Boston College, Bert Lenz, “The most common type of ankle sprain seen in sport involves the ligaments on the lateral [outside] aspect of the ankle. Injury to these ligaments most often occurs with a ‘rolling’ of the ankle inwards, or an inversion mechanism, such as simply stepping on a rock while running. This type of inversion action to the ankle can damage one or all three of these ligaments in differing degrees.”
Sports medicine professionals define dysfunction resulting from ankle inversion injuries as a reduction in proprioception, or knowing where your ankle is in space and what it is doing. If your brain isn’t aware of how your ankle should react, you’re much more likely to trip over a log or roll your ankle in a downhill divot. So how do you know if you have a weak or “dysfunctional” ankle? According to a study published by T. H. Trojan and D. B. McKeag in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the simple “single-leg balance test” is a reliable way to predict the possibility of future ankle sprains.
To perform the single-leg balance test, stand barefoot on a flat surface. Balance on one foot with the opposite leg bent and not touching the weight-bearing leg. Focus the eyes on a target, then close them for 10 seconds. If you sense any imbalance, the test is failed. If the foot moves on the floor, the arms move, the legs touch or a foot touches down the test is failed. A failed test suggests the individual is more susceptible to ankle sprains and injuries. Further, according to Trojan and McKeag, athletes who failed the single-leg balance test but taped their ankles were less likely to sustain ankle sprains than those who didn’t.