I sprained my left ankle out hiking in a prairie dog field. Stepped right into one of their burrow openings and that was that! I'm told I was lucky I didn't just break it. The physician's assistant at the local clinic gave me the usual RICE recipe (rest, ice, compression with an Ace wrap, and elevation above the level of my heart) and suggested rehab with our local physical therapist. I'm not really a rehab kind of guy. Can I just skip that part?
That's a good question. It has always been assumed that recovery from ankle sprains requires a certain approach with RICE to manage the acute phase and rehab to follow. But what if you did nothing? How long does it take to recover from an ankle sprain? Can you get back to normal in six or eight weeks?
When is ankle rehab needed? Here's what a group of athletic trainers found out about the natural recovery of ankle sprains. They tested two groups of people in their biodynamics research lab at the University of North Carolina (Charlotte). One group had mild-to-moderate ankle sprains. The other group was the control -- they were normal, healthy adults with no ankle sprain.
Measures of joint laxity (looseness) were taken using a special tool called an arthrometer. The arthrometer results showed more anterior (forward) motion of the ankle and more inversion rotation (foot turns inward) in the ankle sprain group compared to the control group. The amount of extra inversion motion available after injury gradually declined during the eight weeks following the injury. No change was observed in the amount of forward displacement between day three and week eight.
Future studies need to compare patients with an ankle sprain who do have rehab and those with an ankle sprain who do not. Since many people sprain their ankles without ever seeking help, knowing if rehab might help could place a higher premium on follow-up. Athletes interested in the fastest recovery time possible may be especially helped by this information.
Tricia J. Hubbard, PhD, ATC, and Mitchell Cordova, PhD, ATC. Mechanical Instability After an Acute Lateral Ankle Sprain. In Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabiliation. July 2009. Vol. 90. No. 7. Pp. 1142-1146.
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