Six Ways to Prevent and Manage Ankle Injury in Youth Sports
Let’s face it – having a kid around is asking for a bump or bruise at some point. Yet there are certain steps you can take to avoid a more debilitating injury to keep them happy and healthy.
A lot of ankle sprains are a result to acute injury that challenges proprioception. Proprioception can be defined as “the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement”. Your muscles, tendons, and joints have little receptors that send constant signals to the brain about what’s going on in the environment. At the ankle, that might be transitioning from standing on two feet to one, walking on unstable ground, or changing direction. During joint-angle changes, these receptors send lightning-quick signals to the brain and back to the muscles for quick, reflexive adjustments to keep you from falling over or getting injured.
Think of rolling your ankle. As soon as a certain threshold of normal movement is crossed, the ankle kicks in to high gear to try and reflexively prevent the ligaments from overstretching. Especially during youth sports, with all of the jumping, running, cutting, and general unpredictability, it’s critical to train proprioception and maintain stability at the joint to avoid injury.
The Quick and Easy Solution
Children are generally learning to navigate the world and are developing motor and neural patterns. Injuries commonly occur in youth participating in both explosive and endurance sports. There is scientific evidence that enhanced proprioception is beneficial for maintenance of ankle mechanics. One quick way to improve their proprioception is wearing a compression sleeve, such as the Full Ankle Helix Compression Sleeve, during practice or playing. These sleeves provide external support and also give extra feedback to the proprioceptors.
However, the more your child can do to prevent these sorts of injuries on their own, the better. Improve their ankle strength and mobility by helping them do these stretches and prehab exercises a few times per week, or even every day if they have sustained an ankle sprain.
5 Ways to Strengthen Your Child’s Calf and Ankle
- Best for 4-7 days post-injury as swelling goes down, pain is minimal, and returning to active motion
- From a seated position, pretend the big toe is a pencil. Begin to draw the capital letters of the Alphabet in the air, starting with A and ending with Z. Only the ankle should be moving as you trace the letters across multiple planes of movement.
- Best for returning to passive range of motion after injury, or general preventive purposes before exercise.
- Stand about a foot away from a wall and place your hands against the wall to support your weight. Take one foot and step it backwards so that your heel is just touching the ground, creating an acute angle between your ankle and shin. This should cause a stretch in the back of the lower leg. Only stretch to slight discomfort, never pain. If it feels too difficult, bring the leg closer to the wall and go again.
- Do 20-40 seconds with the knee straight, and repeat for the same amount of time with the knee bent.
THERABAND INVERSION, EVERSION, DORSIFLEXION, AND PLANTARFLEXION
- Best for general, progressive strengthening both after returning from injury or as a preventive measure
Get a light-resistance band and attach to a pole or hold for your child. Starting from one side, have your child sit down with the band around their toes and start moving the toes toward the midline of the body (Inversion). Next, shift to the other side and have them move their toes against the band toward the outside of the body (Eversion). Continue by pulling the toes against the band and also pushing down upon it. Each movement should be repeated 15-20 times before moving on.
- Best for pre-injury strengthening or advanced return-to-play after pain and swelling have subsided
- Begin with double leg raises on a flat surface. Using a wall or other support for stability, slowly raise your body up on to your toes, and slowly return to the start. Keep knees and upper body as straight as possible throughout. Repeat 15-20 times.
SINGLE LEG BALANCE
- Best for pre-injury or advanced return to play, as it challenges proprioception and encourages child to maintain posture despite shifts in balance
- Stand on one foot with knee slightly bend. Have a wall or support nearby if balance becomes too difficult. Start with 2 sets of 30 seconds. Increase time, sets, or close eyes to add difficulty.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely remove all injury risk in life and sport. If your child does have an unfortunate incident that causes acute ankle injury, a compression sleeve can come in handy. Along with rest, ice, and elevation, compression can help reduce swelling at the joint as the body continues its natural healing process. Wearing the Full Ankle Helix Compression Sleeve on the injured ankle will help provide support as your child returns to activity as well. If pain and swelling have decreased, some of the above exercises may be appropriate after consulting with a doctor. Eventually, he or she will be back to their playing prime, and you’ll be back to chasing them around.