Many ailments, activities, and injuries can lead to ankle pain in athletes. Ankle pain can be mild like discomfort or a sprain, or it can be something more debilitating and chronic such as arthritis or a break. For athletes, ankle pain can take them out of the game or put them at an increased risk for overuse injuries and re-injury.
According to the National University of Health Sciences, ankle pain and injury is the most common injury in the US. These injuries are most likely to occur when an athlete is involved in sports or other recreational activities such as skateboarding, hiking, and playing outside.
Understanding the Culprits for Ankle Pain
We don’t associate chronic pain with youth athletes as much because of their age. This is a common and costly mistake. Just because they don’t have the years under their belts, it doesn’t mean they don’t have the miles.
Gary Christopher, Athletic Development Coach and President of the Athletic Performance Academy in Philadelphia, talks about athlete training often. His concerns align with my own. He points out that experts recommend that youth athletes train for at least 1 hour per week for their age, which translates to 10 hours for a 10-year-old; 15 hours for a 15-year-old; and 19 hours for a 19-year-old. You get the gist. Gary expresses a concern about this, however, and it is one I agree with. Athletes should be cross-training, too, and playing other sports to avoid injury and to stay motivated. When you combine other common activities in which youth athletes participate, that means a lot more than the hour-per-year training recommendations. This can lead to injury if youth athletes, their coaches, and their parents are not careful. [If you are interested, sign-up for our complimentary performance consultation].
This takes me full circle to the comment about the number of miles that athletes put on their bodies and their ankles. This leaves them at an increased risk for an ankle sprain. Ankle sprains sound minor, but they can lead to significant injuries later if youth athletes don’t take steps to strengthen the ankle and addresses the ankle pain.
Controlling Ankle Pain in Athletes
One of the complications of an ankle sprain in long-term ankle pain and instability. This is the concern for anyone who has suffered an ankle injury. Recovery can be as quick as a few days, or it can take weeks if the injury is more severe. Remember: recovery IS NOT rehabilitation. Whatever the cause, the potential for chronic pain and instability is a big concern. Here are a few tips I have for those who suffer from ankle pain.
14 Tips for Athletes with Ankle Pain
1. Get good gear
Gear is one of the most important considerations you can make to reduce or prevent ankle pain or injuries in youth athletes. Gear is everything from the pads and helmets to the shoes. Athletes must wear the appropriate shoes for their sport, and the shoes must fit properly. Youth athletes should avoid wearing shoes that are worn out, are too small, or are too big. It is a common mistake athletes make when training.
Consider getting fitted and be willing to pay for good shoes. When choosing shoes, make sure they are shoes that will be for the sport only. Shoes must not multitask. When shopping for athletic shoes, wear your own socks and shop for shoes at the end of the day. If the shoes cause pain at the store, they will cause pain in the sport. Athletes don’t have to endure days of pain to “break them in.”
Mobility, ice, compression, and elevation. This is the most common recommendation to control ankle inflammation. Instead of complete rest, light mobility and movement is helpful (as long as it doesn’t increase pain) for removing swelling. If constant pain exist, then keep it light with small ankle movements. If the pain only occurs with cutting or high-level movement, try walking. While the ankle is propped up, ice it for no more than 20 minutes at a time. To control swelling and to immobilize the ankle, put compression on it with a bandage or brace. If you don’t give the ankle a rest, you put it at risk.
3. Try cryotherapy
Don’t be tempted to put heat on the ankle to ease the pain. Use cold to control ankle pain. This is called cryotherapy. Instead of icing, try a new technique. Put ice on the ankle every 10 minutes for immediate short-term relief. Put the ice pack on for 10 minutes, remove it for 10 minutes, and put it back on for 10 more minutes. Do this every two hours for at least 72 hours.
Ice massage is also a great cryotherapy technique. Make an ice massage cup by filling a small paper cup about ¾ of the way fill with water. Freeze the water completely. When you remove the cup from the freezer, put the paper back. Leave enough paper on the cup so you can hold it comfortable without burning your fingers. Place a towel under your foot and rub the exposed ice on your ankle for 8 to 10 minutes. Do not let the ice sit on the skin; instead, keep it moving.
4. Find temporary relief with OTC options
This is a temporary fix that helps you cope with ankle pain. However, if you’re an athlete, a temporary fix might be a helpful tool. However, long-term use may cause gastrointestinal distress or actually slow tissue healing.
NSAIDs are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. You know them best as aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen. Again, this is a temporary solution. Do not rely on medications to avoid the pain. You need to address the ankle pain if you want any chance at relief. NSAIDs are also tricky when dealing with youth athletes because the dosage can cause health concerns in children and young adults. If unsure of dosage, talk with you physician or pediatrician.
5. Brace it
Wear a brace while your ankle heals or when you feel pain flare up again. Bracing your ankle is more than wrapping it in an ACE bandage, however, it can be high-tops sneakers and boots to protect the ankle and the surrounding areas. It is important to wrap the ankle too with tape. Taping methods, if done properly, protect the ankle when the athlete trains or performs.
6. Replace your shoes and avoid others
I talked about the shoes you wear for your sport, but the shoes you wear every day can be a pain too. Your shoes can cause ankle pain or exacerbate it. Don’t worry, you won’t need orthotics. You just need support and balance. Avoid shoes with extremely high heels, and avoid shoes that don’t support your arch. Yes, that means your cheap flip-flops and flats must go. In addition to poor arch support, cheap flip-flops don’t provide the foot with protection at the heel, which can cause instability and rolling.
Also, know when to let go of old shoes. Keeping your favorite pair around for years is not comfortable no matter how much you convince yourself when spring cleaning rolls around.
7. Mind your weight
For many athletes, significant injuries can sideline them to the point of permanent disability if they don’t treat it right away. Often, ankle pain causes athletes to become fearful of putting any weight on the ankle later. This can lead to limited physical activity and weight gain. The ankles feel the brunt of weight-gain. The more weight the body carries, the more pressure it puts on the ankles. Mind your weight by staying active and maintaining a healthy diet. Do so keeps the ankles strong, relieves the pressure, and improves mobility.
8. Mobility matters
Speaking of mobility. I can’t talk about any sport, pain, or injury without stressing mobility. Mobility is the ankle’s ability to move through the normal range of motion efficiently and effectively. Improving mobility helps avoid injury, it stabilizes the ankle, and it strengthens the foundation. Here are a few ways athletes can improve ankle mobility. If you’re looking for tools and ways to increase ankle mobility, checkout these 10 must know tips to improve ankle mobility.
9. Sit better
Sitting can improve ankle pain, even though it doesn’t involve you standing on your feet. The way you sit can stretch and pull your ankles in weird directions, which can increase pain. When you sit, don’t sit on your ankles or cross them over each other. Think about your ankles when you are comfortable. Are they strong and supported, or are the dangling and bent? Keep your feet flat when you sit to support your ankles and avoid stiffness.
10. Restore range of motion
Get your feet and ankles moving again so they don’t become stiff and weak. Restore range of motion in your ankles. This is possible with the mobility exercises I mentioned before, as well as moving the ankle as it heals. To maintain or restore range of motion in painful ankles, try exercises that you can do while you sit or stand. This requires professional guidance and support.
11. Improve balance
As I have said before, instability is a great concern for youth athletes with ankle pain. Balance exercises will improve stability, protect your ankles on uneven surface, and reduce your risk for fall overall at any age. Try standing on one foot with your eyes closed. Can you make it 30 seconds?
Checkout this progression.
12. Strengthen your ankles
Any part of pain relief and injury protection is strength. Strengthening your ankles is just an important as improving arm, leg, and back strength. The stronger your ankles the better they will support you. Strong ankles protect you from injury and re-injury, and they offer more stability.
13. Sporting Stress
Once pain has improved, it is crucial to acclimate the ankle to sports stress. Learning how to land with simultaneous contact is necessary for sports ranging from basketball to soccer.
Practice jumping, landing, and taking a hit.
14. See a physical therapist
Physical therapy deals with the problem and finds a solution. It doesn’t just mask pain. Physical therapy for youth athletes is critical because it helps them address performance issues now so they don’t lead to significant pain and injury later. Physical therapy rehabilitates the body and provides athletes and their parents with the tools and know-how to prevent recurring injuries in the sport and in life.
Retrain and rehabilitate athletes with ankle pain. Don’t try to tackle it on your own. Professional guidance is the only way you can diagnose the pain, understand the cause, avoid injury patterns, and take steps to protect the body from pain.
Call now to meet physical therapists in Santa Clara who have experience with ankle pain and athletes’ needs. Schedule a complimentary physical therapy consultation and fix your ankle problem today!
- JEFFREY D. TIEMSTRA, MD, Department of Family Medicine, University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Jun 15;85(12):1170-1176.