Rehab for Faster Ankle Sprain Recovery

How to Regain Strength and Mobility

Almost everyone has experienced an ankle injury, like a mild strain or sprain, during their lifetime. But regardless of the type of injury, there's one thing patients have in common: a desire to recover as quickly as possible, especially if they are athletes.

Each case is different, and there's no "one size fits all" approach to treatment. However, the process of ankle injury rehab can be similar for many people, and it's important to take it step by step to make a full recovery.

This article describes the basic steps to recovering from an ankle injury and how to know when you're ready to get back to your normal activities.

"R.I.C.E." Treatment

Coach looking at rugby player's ankle

Tony Latham/Getty Images

The early treatment for an ankle sprain is the "RICE" method of treatment. This is focused on reducing swelling and reducing pain:

  • Rest: The first 24 to 48 hours after the injury is considered a critical treatment period. Limit activities and use an assistive device, like a crutch, if you must walk. After you rest your ankle for a day or two, you can gradually begin to put weight on it. Once you can walk without a limp. you won't need to use a crutch.
  • Ice: Applying cold to your injury helps reduce swelling and relieve pain. While ice packs can be helpful, there are also special ice wraps that are made to mold to the joint.
  • Compression: Use compression in the early phase of ankle sprain treatment. Using an elastic wrap (like an Ace bandage), wrap the ankle from the toes all the way up to the top of the calf muscle, overlapping the elastic wrap by one-half of the width of the wrap. The wrap should be snug, but should not cut off circulation to the foot.
  • Elevation: Prop up your ankle and keep it higher than your heart as often as possible. This helps prevent and reduce swelling. Keep in mind that propping your ankle on a chair while you are sitting up does not keep it above your heart.

Range of Motion Exercises

For the most part, ankle sprains don't need to be immobilized with a cast or boot to prevent movement. In fact, simple exercises are an important part of treatment.

The first step toward recovery is to regain the ability to move your ankle normally. Pain and swelling can both limit movement, so address those first. Check with your healthcare provider to determine when it's okay to start range-of-motion activities.

Physical therapists often recommend tracing the alphabet in space with your big toe. Start with print letters, then try cursive. This simple activity will move your foot through all the basic ankle motions.

Strengthening Exercises

Once you've reduced pain and swelling, and achieved simple motion, it's time to start strengthening your ankle. Injuries like sprains can weaken the ankle and make it more susceptible to another injury. Strengthening exercises can help you get back to your normal activities without fear of another sprain.

Basic strengthening activities include work with resistance bands, toe raises, and lunges. A physical therapist can help you target specific muscles that may have been injured and ensure that you're doing the exercises properly.

Proprioceptive Training

Female osteopath training with patient, exercising balance, Munich, Bavaria, Germany

Lumi Images/Dario Secen/Getty Images

Proprioception is your body's ability to sense its movement and position. It allows you to move your body without thinking about every single step. Good proprioceptive training (also called balance training) can help prevent future ankle injuries.

Proprioception exercises include standing on one leg to perform simple activities (like throwing a ball), or balancing on one leg with your eyes closed. Training the ankle to be more stable with these activities can improve your overall recovery.

Sport-Specific Activities

Physical Therapist and Patient in a Rehabilitation Center

Fuse/Getty Images

The final stage of recovery from an ankle injury is to perform endurance and agility exercises. This may include drills aimed at cutting, pivoting, or jumping, such as those that mimic movements of your chosen activity or sport.

It is important to perform these activities in a safe, controlled environment before returning to your normal sports activities. Performing activity-specific drills can help your body prepare for the activity, rather than having to suddenly react to an in-game event.

Unfortunately, many athletes neglect this step and return to sports too soon. If the injury is not completely healed and the body is not fully ready, there is a risk of re-injuring the ankle. And the recovery from a second injury may be longer and more complicated.

Return to Full Activities

Confident African American soccer player practices with team

Steve Debenport/Getty Images

While there is no clear consensus, most healthcare providers agree that you can resume full activities once the risk of re-injuring your ankle falls to what it was before you got hurt.

In general, you shouldn't try to return to your normal sports routine until you've reached the following goals:

  • No more swelling
  • Normal joint motion
  • Normal joint strength

A team trainer or healthcare provider should ensure that you're ready to return to sports before you start playing again.

Surgery

Surgical treatment of an ankle sprain is rarely needed. However, if you have repeated sprains, or ankle instability after your injury, your healthcare provider could recommend surgery.

The surgery will reconstruct the ligaments that are no longer supporting the ankle adequately. This will make your joint more stable.

Summary

Ankle injuries can be frustrating for active people and athletes who are eager to get back to regular activities. In order to heal properly, you need to focus on the next step in your recovery and not to return to sports until your healthcare provider says you're ready.

Applying RICE treatment and easing back into movement through simple motions, balance exercises, and drills are important steps to recovery. Taking the time to focus on—and not rush—your recovery can help make sure your ankle is strong and stable. This can help prevent a future injury and a longer, more difficult recovery.

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chinn L, Hertel J. Rehabilitation of ankle and foot injuries in athletesClin Sports Med. 2010;29(1):157–167. doi:10.1016/j.csm.2009.09.006

  2. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sprained ankle.

  3. Mattacola CG, Dwyer MK. Rehabilitation of the ankle after acute sprain or chronic instabilityJ Athl Train. 2002;37(4):413–429.

  4. Tuthill JC, Azim E. ProprioceptionCurr Biol. 2018;28(5):R194–R203. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.01.064

  5. de Vasconcelos GS, Cini A, Sbruzzi G, Lima CS. Effects of proprioceptive training on the incidence of ankle sprain in athletes: systematic review and meta-analysisClin Rehabil. 2018;32(12):1581–1590. doi:10.1177/0269215518788683

  6. Rivera MJ, Winkelmann ZK, Powden CJ, Games KE. Proprioceptive training for the prevention of ankle sprains: An evidence-based reviewJ Athl Train. 2017;52(11):1065-1067. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-52.11.16

  7. Calatayud J, Borreani S, Colado JC, Flandez J, Page P, Andersen LL. Exercise and ankle sprain injuries: a comprehensive reviewPhys Sportsmed. 2014;42(1):88–93. doi:10.3810/psm.2014.02.2051

Additional Reading