"It's just an ankle sprain..."

If you played football, soccer, volleyball, or basketball (and basically any sport that requires legs), you probably have sprained your ankle at least once in your lifetime.  It's an inherent risk to most sports and one of the most common injuries in athletes, with an estimated 1.016 million reported ankle sprains per year. 

While there is not much evidence to support what we can do to predict an ankle injury, we do know that you are more likely to sprain your ankle again if you have previously had an ankle sprain.  So let's talk about why ankle sprains are so important to rehab properly and not just let it be-

1. Damaged ligaments can lead to long-term laxity.

Ligaments are dense connective tissue that have plasticity (simply means the quality of being easily shaped or molded), and with a serious stress to the ligaments into the ankle, they quickly take on the shape of the stress.  What does that mean? Imagine the plastic wrap around a 6-pack of soda cans.  Now if you stretch that plastic, it stays stretched and does not return back to it's normal shape.  That plastic is your ligaments within the ankle after you sprain them.

That is a very simplistic analogy and not quite accurate, as we do have evidence that ligaments can return back to it's normal shape after some time, but it is not immediate.  How you treat the ligament after the injury plays a big role on future plasticity of that soft tissue.  Without proper stress placed on the ligaments post-injury, the damaged ligaments can stay lengthened over a long period of time and can cause more injuries for the future.

2. It's not a big deal if my ankle doesn't heal correctly, so I don't need to get it treated.

Injured joints have effect more than just the bones and soft tissue.  Joint capsules, muscles, ligaments, etc, play a large role into the neurological system, and your brain and body depend on the feedback from those joints.  In a previous post, I have talked about proprioception, which is the body's ability to sense where it is in space.  If a joint does not have tension within the soft tissue, awareness is decreased, and can either lead to decreased coordination or compensation through other joints in the body.

3. It's not a serious sprain, I can just rest and ice it.

A low grade sprain can still cause a lot of problems, and just resting it (and even going on crutches and bracing it) can cause the tendons to shorten, making the ankle tighter and losing important range of motion.  Most commonly, people lose dorsiflexion in their injured ankle, which is a very important range to have freedom into.  With a loss of dorsiflexion, people have to compensate through other joints, such as getting too much torsion into the knee (think meniscus issues), or becoming quad dominate due to pushing through the toes (think hip impingement or patellar tendonitis).  If you do nothing to take care of preserving your range of motion and keep the healthy soft tissue moving, you can create more problems into other joints of your body.

Don't sleep on a sprained ankle.  Even a simple sprain deserves getting some sort of treatment that helps restore motion back into the ankle and work on preventing another ankle injury.