Patient in the sports therapy gym

Nov 25, 2019 / Sports Medicine

Start with a Stable Foundation: Protecting Ankles in Young Athletes

Ankle injuries are common in sports like basketball, volleyball and soccer. Though many ankle injuries are sprains of one or more of the ligaments surrounding the ankle, we also see patients whose injuries are a little deeper than that. The cartilage and bony surface of the ankle bones can become damaged. This can happen suddenly with an acute injury or with repetitive movements in some sports like dance. This condition is called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) and can also occur in the knee and elbow. Though the actual cause of the weakness in the bone and cartilage is unknown, we believe that proper evaluation of a new complaint in a young athlete is important. Treatment, which begins with rest and protection of the joint, is more successful when it is caught early. 

Though all injuries can’t be prevented, performing exercises for the ankle can help with injury prevention. Here are four categories of exercise that improve ankle stability. 

Strengthening – Repetition of resistance exercises helps the muscles in the lower leg improve muscle strength as well as improves the athlete’s ability to control these muscles during activity. Body weight resistance is enough for most young athletes. For example, try calf raises and ankle pumps.

Mobility – Stretching before and after activity keeps muscles and ligaments flexible which helps them respond to sudden changes in direction without an injury. For example, try runners’ (calf) stretches and ankle circles.

Balance – Activities that challenge the athlete to maintain stability while performing a task or standing on an uneven surface prepare the athlete for unexpected movements during sports. For example, try standing on one foot while catching a ball.

Proprioception – Signals between the ankle and the brain help the muscles act quickly to protect the ankle in risky movements. Proprioception exercises enhance the ability to recognize and respond to an unstable position quickly. Try standing on one leg with your eyes closed.

Some studies have shown that poor balance can be a predictor of ankle injuries in high school athletes. Learning to work on balance and proprioception as a young athlete helps develop stability. With a solid foundation, ankle injuries are less likely to occur, and the athlete is prepared to progress to more difficult skills and competitive environments. 

Learn more about pediatric sports medicine and injury prevention. 

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