Published on October 03, 2016

Ankle sprain pain can have a domino effect on your healthAnkle sprain pain can have a domino effect on your health

They might be common to the literal core, but ankle sprains can put even the best out of business.

While 25,000 Americans suffer from sprained ankles every day, according to the American College of Sports Medicine [pdf], the statistic that’s even more astounding is the fact that only 40 percent of these injuries are diagnosed and treated correctly. Without proper treatment, ankle sprains can lead to a host of health problems – particularly ,with the elderly.

Sprained ankles are one of the injuries often seen by physical therapists, like Jinx O’Loughlin, PT, who practices at Cape Cod Hospital Rehab Services in Orleans. Because the injury can inflict pain around the foot and ankle, it can often feel worse than a broken bone, and can immobilize patients for weeks or months at a time.

“Your ankle looks like a puzzle of bones that are held together by soft tissue called ligaments, which have nerve endings,” O’Loughlin said. “When the foot comes down sideways unexpectedly, and you stretch far enough, you tear them, which is unbelievably painful.”

The injury often occurs in the spring after a “long winter of inactivity,” and can happen during physical recreation like hiking, playing sports, or even by wearing improper footwear, O’Loughlin explained. Patients need to immediately begin to encourage the healing process, which includes using techniques like icing and compressions, elevation, and ankle movement, she added. This will help supply blood to the area, which is needed to circulate nutrition to the sprain.

“When muscles don’t move, they build up fluids which need to be pumped out, so you want to rotate your ankle, pump it up and down, and move it side to side,” O’Loughlin said. “Yes it’s going to hurt at first, but it’s a process and once you get from one stage to another you will notice how the therapy is helping.”

Proper Treatment is Essential

These techniques may sound easy, but O’Loughlin was emphatic that before doing any of them, you should consult with your doctor, as well as a physical therapist, who can show you how to properly move your foot and ankle.

O’Loughlin believes it’s imperative for everyone to be evaluated by a physical therapist to avoid a cycle of chronic sprains, and both athletes and the elderly, in particular, require specific kinds of care, she said.

For those heavily engaged in sports, she recommends “sports-specific rehab,” which is designed to return the patient back to their previous level of activity as quickly and safely as possible, and often involves support from a team of doctors, coaches and physical therapists.

“Therapy would include exercises like running, jumping and changing direction quickly,” O’Loughlin said. “And they would have a ton of support from their families, their coaches as well as physicians working together to get them back in the game.”

While this kind of specific rehabilitation works for athletes, it’s the elderly population that can fall through the cracks, possibly leading to what O’Loughlin calls a “death sentence.”

“So many older people are afraid to get up and fall again and it’s because of that fear they begin to get weak, gain weight and can experience damage to their cardiovascular system,” O’Loughlin said. “They absolutely need people to rally around them and force them to engage in challenging situations so they know they can handle it and don’t avoid it.”

Regardless of what level of care a patient is receiving, or how old they are, the most important aspect of healing, is re-establishing confidence after a painful fall, she said. Fear, can easily stand in the way of a full recovery.

“Yes the elderly can become afraid of falling but at the same time, a younger crowd will avoid the extremity and shift their weight to avoid dealing with the direct pain, which can then create knee, hip, and back problems,” O’Loughlin said. “The bottom line is that the faster patients can remove that cycle of fear, the faster they can create change and move forward.”