An ankle injury is the most common type of injury that may involve the bones of the ankle and other soft tissue structures. Three are three types of injuries that are observed at the ankle:
Sprains are injuries to the ligaments that connect one bone to another. An ankle sprain may involve an injury to one or more ligaments that stabilize the ankle and the foot.
Strains are injuries that involve musculotendinous (muscle and tendon) structures. Both sprains and strains can occur due to over-stretching or tearing of the ligaments and tendons due to sudden twisting of the ankle joint or when excessive forces are applied on them.
Fractures are injuries that involve bones of the ankle joint. It ranges from a simple break in one bone to several fractures, which causes your ankle to move out of place and puts you in great pain.
Who could be at a risk of an ankle injury?
Ankle injuries may occur among,
- Sports persons- Gymnasts, basketball players, players participating in jumping sports etc.
- Women wearing unstable high heels
- Hypermobile people who already have laxed ankle ligaments
Types of Ankle injuries
- Lateral ankle injury
This is the most common injury to the ankle. Often, an inversion sprain could be an associated with a fracture and a strain to the peroneal tendons.
An inversion sprain happens when the ankle in twisted inwards with an inward rolled foot as shown in Fig 1.
- The Medial ankle injury
This type of injury occurs at the inner aspect of the ankle. Like a inversion sprain, the eversion sprain may also be associated with fractures of lower ends of the leg bones and strains to the tibialis anterior muscle.
Eversion sprain happens when the ankle is twisted out with the foot rolled outwards as shown in Fig 2.
High Ankle Injury
This type of injury is very rare. A high ankle sprain happens when the tibia bone rotates injuring the ligaments that hold the lower end of the two leg bones (tibia and fibula) as shown in Fig 3.
Severe injuries may cause fracture to the lower ends of the leg bones.
Severity of an ankle sprain
- Swelling: Increased fluid in the tissue due to inflammation and soft tissue damage.
- Pain: Depending upon the severity of the injury and the structures involved, pain intensity can vary.
- Redness/ Warmth/ Tenderness: Caused by increased blood flow to the area.
- Unstable ankle: The affected side feels weak and difficult to weight-bear.
- Deformity: Severe injuries can cause fractured bones to move out of place and make the ankle look deformed.
- Stepping in a hole or a stone
- Running on uneven ground
- Fall or slippage on wet floor
- Contact injury during sports like basketball, when a player is accidentally hit by an opponent causing the foot to roll inwards as shown in Fig 5.
Lack of flexibility in muscles can hamper joint movement. For example, if the calf muscles are very tight, it will affect the stability and mobility of the ankle joint. In such a state, if one engages in any physical activity like running there could be a potential risk of twisting an ankle. Sometimes even lack of warm-up and stretching could be the cause of muscle imbalances.
- Lack of Postural control
Postural control is defined as the act of maintaining, achieving or restoring a state of balance during any posture or activity.
It helps to maintain a good base of support for balance so that the force of gravity can act on the center of mass (COM) of the body. Centre of mass is the point in the body where the entire body weight is concentrated (located in the lower end of the spine) as shown in Fig 6.
During sports, sudden quick body movements or external forces like a push or a contact by an opponent will affect your balance. If you lack postural controlm you may lose balance and risk hurting your ankle.
Diagnosis of an ankle injury
Most ankle injuries are usually straightforward ligament strains. However, the clinical presentation of subtle fractures can be similar to that of a ankle sprains and these fractures can be easily missed on initial examination. Fractures are usually detected via X-ray scans. If any fracture is left untreated, it may cause excessive pain and disability to an extent that you may not be able to bear weight on the joint. Therefore, an X-ray or an MRI scan is often recommended to understand the severity of the injury.
For example, a lateral ankle sprain showing fractured bones in an X-ray is shown in fig 7.
Ankle Injury management
Usually, ligament injuries heal in about 6-12 weeks and fractured bones take about 3-6 months to heal. This is however largely dependent on the severity of the injury and lifestyle of the individual so complete healing time frame may vary.
Even after the healing process, ankle injuries may cause long term instability if not healed correctly. This may also be the cause of recurrent ankle sprains. An expert assessment of ankle mechanics is very important to decide on how long to protect and rehabilitate an ankle after an injury. The treatment plan will aim to restore the normal functions of the ankle and make return-to-play decisions based on the stability of the ankle thus preventing recurrent ankle injuries.