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With fall sports seasons in full swing and cooler, wetter weather just around the corner, it’s peak season for ankle sprains, one of the most common musculoskeletal injuries in the U.S. Yet, Seattle physical therapist Sam Apple, PT, DPT, says incidents of ankle sprains can be minimized through simple strength, balance and flexibility exercises. 

“Ankle sprains happen when your foot turns or twists beyond its normal range of motion due to a slip, trip or roll on an uneven surface, injuring the ligaments in your ankle,” said Apple, physical therapist at Real Rehab Sports + Physical Therapy in Seattle. “A sprained ankle is one of the most common injuries we see, so if you’ve experienced it before, you’re in good company.” 

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), 25,000 people suffer ankle sprains every day in the U.S. That’s around 9 million ankle sprains each year, accounting for nearly half of all sports injuries. One study found that ankle sprains account for nearly one-third of all reported sports injuries, with sports high in jumping, cutting and pivoting (i.e., football, volleyball, soccer and basketball) putting athletes the most at risk. 

About three out of four ankle sprains are the classic rolled ankles, or inward “inversion sprains.” Such injuries vary in grade, based on the extent of injury to the ligament, leading to pain, swelling, weakness and instability. 

“Sprained ankles happen, there’s no denying that. But there are ways to minimize the odds of a sprain or a re-sprain,” said Apple. “Depending on your functional or performance goals, as well as the levels of strength and stability you have, individualized programs can be created based on improving three areas: strength, balance and flexibility.” 

Strength: Weak muscles around the ankle joint, specifically those on the outside of the ankle, can make you more susceptible to an ankle sprain, Apple said. While a physical therapist can provide a customized strength program specifically for your ankle, here’s a simple exercise you can perform at home: While sitting, wrap a towel around your foot for resistance as you move your foot up and down, left and right. 

Balance: Proprioception is your body’s ability to sense itself relative to neighboring body parts. Low proprioception in your ankle can affect your balance and, hence, your ability to prevent ankle sprains. To get a sense of this, stand on one leg for several seconds. Close your eyes (within reach of a wall, chair or countertop for balance) for a greater challenge. Do this once for a sense of balance; do it daily on each leg (and hold) to improve your balance over time. 

Flexibility: Tightness and movement limitations up your legs and into your hips and torso can affect the stability of your ankles. It’s true! So, remaining flexible and mobile not just in your ankle, but throughout your body, can dramatically improve functional and athletic performance, Apple said, while decreasing the chance of ankle sprains. 

“If you have experienced an ankle sprain, rest is important, but studies show that individualized treatment by a physical therapist can get you back to your normal lifestyle and performance goals quicker than you can do on your own,” Apple said. “Seeing a physical therapist first can save you time, money and put you on track toward injury prevention in the future.”