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Exercises for Stiff Ankle After a Sprain

author image Meredith Victor
Meredith Victor is a doctor of physical therapy and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She has more than seven years of combined physical therapy experience, including outpatient orthopedics, acute care and inpatient rehabilitation. Her passion is prehabilitation, which helps prevent postoperative complications and accelerates recovery after elective surgery.
Exercises for Stiff Ankle After a Sprain
Close-up of man unwrapping his sprained ankle. Photo Credit: Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images

Feelings of stiffness and tightness are common following an ankle sprain. Swelling and pain often limit movement in the early days after the injury. As well, your doctor may advise against moving the ankle to allow the sprain to heal. The lack of movement, or the sprain itself, can lead to the development of scar tissue and loss of mobility in the ankle joint. Stiffness may persist long after the swelling and pain are gone. Your doctor or physical therapist can design an exercise program to help reduce stiffness after an ankle sprain.

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Stretching Exercises

Stretching is the main type of exercise used to reduce stiffness after an ankle sprain. Your doctor will tell you when it is safe to begin stretching exercises. Stretching exercises are typically performed by moving the ankle in all directions. The goal is to stretch your ankle as much as you can, without experiencing pain. Most stretching exercises involve simple body movements or the use of basic equipment, such as a towel. Your doctor or physical therapist will determine which ankle stretching exercises are best for you. Stretching exercises may be most effective when performed after foam rolling exercises or massage therapy.

Foam Rolling Exercises

Exercises using a foam roller are another way to help reduce stiffness in many parts of the body, including the ankles. After an ankle sprain, it is important to wait until your doctor gives you permission to begin this type of exercise. Foam rolling exercises are generally performed on the floor, with the ankle or lower leg being positioned on top of the foam roller. In this way, the weight of the body is used to apply pressure to the stiff areas. Your doctor or physical therapist will teach you the proper way to do these exercises.

Other Stiffness Therapy

Massage therapy can also help decrease stiffness of the ankle. Because moving the foot upward toward the head is generally the most limited movement after a sprained ankle, massage is usually most helpful when applied to the back or outside of the calf. Different techniques of massage can be used, either alone or in combination. Skin rolling is a technique that is most useful when the stiffness is due to scar tissue close to the surface of the skin, whereas kneading techniques are best for stiffness caused by deeper scar tissue. If exercises and massage do not adequately improve ankle stiffness, this may be because there is scar tissue deep within the ankle joint. Joint mobilization is a type of treatment performed by a physical therapist to help break up this deep scar tissue.

Future Treatment

Once the stiffness in your ankle is improved, your doctor or physical therapist may recommend that you continue stretching and foam rolling exercises to ensure that your ankle maintains good movement. As well, you may be advised to perform exercises to strengthen the muscles around your ankle in order to reduce the risk of developing another ankle sprain in the future.

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