Ankle sprains: we’ve all been there. You’re playing a pick-up basketball game and going for a layup. You take off, tip the ball over the rim, and watch the ball sink through the net when all of a sudden—POP! You land awkwardly on someone else’s foot and feel a searing pain in your ankle. Chances are you just experienced a grade 1, 2 or at worst, grade 3 ankle sprain, and could be sidelined for weeks!
According to research by the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, over 1 in 500 Americans suffer an ankle sprain every year. The incidence of ankle sprains increases dramatically for young people who engage in competitive or recreational sports. Since an ankle sprain can keep you on the sidelines for weeks, the best way to deal with them is to avoid them in the first place.
Degrees of Ankle Sprain Grades
There are several ankle sprain grades that are determined by how much damage occurs to the ligaments in your ankle at the point of injury. Here are the 3 types you could experience (from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons):
Grade 1 Ankle Sprain
- Slight stretching and microscopic tearing of the ligament fibers
- Mild tenderness and swelling around the ankle
Grade 2 Ankle Sprain
- Partial tearing of the ligament
- Moderate tenderness and swelling around the ankle
- If the doctor moves the ankle in certain ways, there is an abnormal looseness of the ankle joint
Grade 3 Ankle Sprain
- Complete tear of the ligament
- Significant tenderness and swelling around the ankle
- If the doctor pulls or pushes on the ankle joint in certain movements, substantial instability occurs
The Risk Factor
The first step in avoiding ankle sprains is knowing the risks. This is exactly what the doctors at the Army Medical Center wanted to do. In their study, published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in 2010, the researchers looked at over three million emergency room records of ankle sprains to uncover potential risk factors. They found that almost half of all ankle sprains occur during sporting activities, and among these, basketball was the undisputed king of ankle injuries, accounting for 41% of all sporting-related ankle sprains. Football, soccer, and running came next, accounting for nine, eight, and seven percent of athletic ankle sprains, respectively.
How to Prevent Ankle Sprains
So, if you are at risk (and if you’re relatively young and active, you probably are), what can you do to prevent an ankle sprain? This is a question that’s vexed professional sports teams for years, as an injured athlete can cost a team a tremendous amount of money. Because of this, pro sporting organizations across the world have poured millions of dollars and hundreds of hours into research on ankle sprains.
1) Balance & Wobble Training
One such collaboration was led by Evert Verhagen and other researchers at the EMGO-Institute in Amsterdam. In this study, 116 men’s and women’s volleyball teams were followed over the course of a year. Half of the teams were assigned a five-minute wobble-board training program to be done daily in addition to their typical training, while the other half just continued normal training. At the study’s conclusion, the authors found that the teams that did balance training had 30% fewer ankle sprains. While this means doing balance board training doesn’t guarantee you’ll keep your ankles intact, it does mean that just five minutes of balance work per day could be worth your while.
2) Braces & Wraps
If you’ve already had an ankle sprain in the past, there’s good evidence you should wear an ankle brace when you train, compete, or exercise. Stephen Thacker and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that anyone who has suffered a moderate or severe ankle sprain in the past six to twelve months use an ankle brace when they return to the field—they cite research showing that the protective benefits of a brace last for at up to a year after injury. On the other hand, there’s no conclusive evidence that taping or bracing is useful in athletes who haven’t had an ankle sprain. This is good news, since it can be a hassle to strap up a brace every time you head out for a rec sports league game.
If you’re young and active, you’re at risk for an ankle sprain. The best way to prevent them is to work on your ankle strength and coordination by doing single-leg balance work on a wobble-board for five minutes every day. If you’ve had an ankle sprain in the last year, you should also be wearing an ankle brace any time you hit the field. While neither of these will prevent all ankle sprains, they’re a relatively small investment for a big reduction in ankle injury risk.
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John Davis is a Minnesota-based writer, scholar, and coach. He graduated from Carleton College with a degree in chemistry and an interest in the intersection of science, health, and fitness. His research interests include long-distance running, injury treatment and prevention, and lifestyle habits for long-term health. In his free time, he is an avid runner, keen reader of scientific research, and a high school track and cross country coach. His website, RunningWritings.com, provides detailed analysis of elite training, injury treatments, and coaching philosophies for runners. His first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, was published in 2013 and is available at Amazon.com.