Have you ever gone looking for something and then realized it’s staring you right in the face? I remember my mother used to say, “If it got any closer, it would bite you in the nose.” Well, that kind of thinking really applies here.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that might seem obvious, but we take them for granted. In this case, we’re talking about our ankles. They are so critical to our mobility and yet, it’s rare that people think about them — and that’s a mistake, so that’s why we’re going to look at them together. A little knowledge can go a long way, and that is certainly the case when it comes to these critical joints.
We’ve talked about joints before, so I believe you understand that a joint is where two bones meet. Joints are important because they work with cartilage, fluid, ligaments and tissue to allow your bones to have the proper space between them and slide past each other in a fluid motion.
Your ankles may look like two little joints, but in reality, they have big jobs to do. They work with the muscles around them to provide really important functions. They support your body to allow you to stand upright, and they’re the force that pushes you forward so you can walk.
The big jobs they do don’t end there. They also are the power that allows you to turn in every direction, lets you balance and adapt to changes in the surfaces you’re walking on. Understanding what these crucial joints do, you can also see what a big impact it will have on your mobility and quality of life when you have problems with your ankles.
Ankle problems can result from a variety of causes. You could have a sprain or a fracture. You could also have an overuse or misuse injury. Remember, overuse is when you’ve overdone it, such as pushing your running routine or expanding your daily walking too quickly, or doing a repetitive activity that pounds away at the ankles over and over again.
Underuse can be just as damaging. It’s when you’re not using the ankles enough. Do you sit a great deal and for long periods of time? Then, your ankles could be prime candidates for issues from underuse.
You also don’t want to overlook the simple things, either. Are you wearing proper shoes for your activities? Are your shoes worn out, so they aren’t providing the proper support? These little considerations are not so little when you understand how important they are to the health of your ankles, and your feet, for that matter.
Any one of these issues or a combination of them could cause problems with your ankles, because the result of these kinds of problems is that the space between the joints winds up narrowing. When that happens, it impacts the movements that are produced with your ankles because the bones aren’t gliding back and forth properly, and then your muscles can’t work with your joints to give you all the different functions of the ankles.
Ankle injuries aren’t always easy to diagnose, either, because injuries such as a sprain, strain or fracture can have similar symptoms. A good example of what I’m talking about here is that pain, swelling, limited motion and bruising in the entire ankle region can occur in both high ankle sprains and lateral (side) ankle sprains. You could also be dealing with ligament tears, so you can see where I’m going with this.
Ankle injuries should get the same attention as an injury to your arm or leg. You should never take chances, and you know how strongly I feel about self-diagnosis. When you don’t get a professional evaluation, you can be causing yourself harm in the short and long term.
The first and most important step you need to take to understand the nature of an ankle problem and how to properly address it is to make an immediate appointment to see a medical professional.
As I always discuss with you, it’s important to properly prepare for your appointment. Start with the basics dealing with the problem at hand. Write down a description of what the problem is and explain what it felt like when it happened or at the onset of the problem and how it felt. Write down any symptoms you may be feeling now. Have they changed? Explain that, too.
If you have been experiencing weakness in your ankles, but no specific injury you can think of, you need to share that with your doctor. Did anything change in your typical routine? Are you less or more active than you typically have been? Any new health issues? What about old injuries?
You also need to remember to write down any prescriptions you take, as well as the dosage, and also write down any supplements you’re taking, including vitamins. Have you started taking something new or made any changes that the doctor you are seeing may not be aware of? Make a point of talking about that when you are at your appointment.
One more thing: If you have been taking any medication for pain, even an aspirin or ibuprofen, don’t forget to include that information, along with any other steps you may have taken to deal with your injury. No detail is too small, because it’s those details that form the whole picture for your medical professional.
When you see your doctor, you can expect that your doctor will perform a thorough exam and may require some tests to determine what exactly your injury is and how best to treat it.
In many cases, your recovery plan will include physical therapy, and if that is required in your situation, your doctor will refer you to a physical therapist. When you go to the physical therapist, the process will remind you of what happened at your doctor’s office, and that’s a good thing. A thorough evaluation is just as important when you go to physical therapist, to make the right assessment based on the full picture. Understanding your current physical situation based on your injury, what your treatment has been to date and all the information your doctor has shared informs the treatment plan that is devised specifically for you.
Your physical therapist will also likely want to get your perspective to understand how you feel and know if you have concerns. You know from our visits here in the Coastal Point that I view this as an important part of creating the right foundation for a relationship going forward. I want to know anything you want to share with me, and I look at it as time well spent to be sure your concerns and issues are heard and taken into consideration.
Ultimately, all this information feeds your comprehensive, customized treatment program that will likely involve hands-on treatment and exercises to help you regain as much as possible of your normal range of motion, improve your mobility and build strength in your ankles.
I want to look at prevention for a minute, because before an injury happens, part of being properly informed is to understand what you can do to stop an injury from happening in the first place. One size does not fit all, so don’t go online or read an article and think that’s what I need to know. Staying fit depends on your personal situation, so if you’re finishing your treatment with your physical therapist ask about how you can maintain your ankle health and strength.
Take the right simple steps, too, such as paying attention to the surfaces you are walking on and wearing proper shoes. And, whatever you do, remember what I tell you all the time — and I’ll tell you again now: Don’t ever exercise without a proper warm-up and cool-down, and never go to extreme intensity without gradually working up to that level of activity, to avoid a painful injury.
You may think that no harm can come from suddenly deciding to add five extra blocks to your daily walk, but think about it. Five blocks that way means five more blocks on the return trip. Depending on your overall situation and the ground surface you cross, this could be an issue.
If you’ve seen yourself in this article and think you want to do something to improve your ankle and overall health, good for you. I always applaud decisions that involve following a path to a healthier lifestyle. Just be smart about it. Do your homework.
If you want to get into a program that can get you out of the house, help you meet new people and get professional assistance, look into enrolling in program. Some physical therapists offer small group programs, like we do here at Tidewater, that are inexpensive and include involve supervision by a trained professional who will consider your personal health situation.
The obvious big takeaway here is that ankle health is important. When you limit the functions, your ankles provide you can see what a troubling result that will have for even the simplest daily activities to say nothing of the negative impact on so many related functions.
Here’s a classic example. I bet you never thought ankle health could involve your posture, but it does. Whether it’s enjoying sports or hobbies such as gardening, sitting and standing, walking from room to room, or going up or down stairs, ankles our central to all we do at every age. As we get older, the health of our ankles speaks directly to our range of motion, balance and functional ability.
It’s all up to you. Get off the coach, get out of the chair, keep moving and do it wisely. And don’t think I’m forgetting about you if you have a cane or a walker. You have options. I want you to live your life to the fullest every day.
Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.
By Bob Cairo
Special to the Coastal Point