How Long Should You Wait to Exercise a Sprained Ankle?

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Exercising your ankle too soon after a sprain could delay healing. (Image: Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images)

If you start ankle exercises too soon or progress exercises too fast following an ankle sprain, you could cause more damage and delay your recovery. Ankle sprain rehabilitation is divided into three phases. Knowing these phases will help you determine when to start ankle exercises and what exercises are appropriate. The severity of your ankle sprain and your symptoms, such as swelling and pain, will influence your rehabilitation timeline. Consult a physical therapist or athletic trainer for guidance.

Ankle Sprain

An ankle sprain occurs when one or more ligaments become stretched or torn, and it may be categorized as a grade I, II or III sprain. Grade I is a mild sprain when ankle ligaments are overstretched but not torn. Grade II is when ligaments partially tear, and grade III is a complete rupture or tear of one or more ligaments.

Phase One

The goal of phase one is to reduce swelling and pain. This phase can last between one and seven days after your ankle sprain. Rest, applying ice and wearing an elastic bandage during this time is necessary. For grade III ankle sprains, wearing a walking boot or using crutches is also necessary. Elevating your ankle above your heart and taking over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen can further reduce swelling. Most exercises will be too painful to perform during this phase, with the exception of possibly isometric exercises. Isometric ankle exercises involve pushing your foot in a given direction against resistance, such as a wall, but not moving your ankle.

Phase Two

Phase two may begin after the first 72 hours or when your swelling and pain start to subside. The duration of phase two is between one and three weeks, depending on the severity of your ankle sprain. During this phase, you will perform light ankle exercises to increase ankle flexibility and strength. Exercises include ankle circles, marble pickup, single-leg balance and heel walking. For marble pickup, slowly pick up marbles using your toes and place them in a container while seated in a chair. Perform exercises several times daily. To maintain cardiovascular fitness, bike, swim or aqua-jog three to five days a week.

Phase Three

Phase three begins after you have regained normal ankle flexibility and have improved ankle strength and stability. The duration of phase three varies from a few days for a grade I ankle sprain to a couple of weeks for a grade III sprain. During this phase, perform sport-specific or functional exercises that are similar to your daily activities and exercises while still incorporating phase two exercises. For example, you may run for two to five minutes, perform a quick agility drill and then perform single-leg balance on a wobble board. Phase three eases you back into your normal exercise routine without re-injury. Because of this, functional or sport-specific exercises are initially performed only two to three days a week, not on consecutive days.

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