You can always self-treat your ankle and hope for the best. But a faster way to recover is by doing physical therapy for a sprained ankle.
Physical therapists are movement experts. We help bridge the gap between your ankle injury to full recovery through skilled assessment and treatment.
Below, I’ll tell you what we (physios) do to shorten your recovery time, along with other tips to make sure you get the best care possible. Here are the topics covered, tap on any of them to go to its section:
8 ways how physical therapy work for ankle sprains
1) Customized treatment of your injured ankle
Every ankle sprain is unique. Different ligaments can be involved, with a variety of symptoms and recovery timelines.
The first thing your physical therapist (PT) will do is assess your injury. We do this by running you through some tests to know what type of ankle sprain you have. This usually involves:
- Asking you about your injury and your current symptoms.
- Doing some movements on your joint to check its condition.
- Going through functional tests that may mimic your daily activities.
This helps establish a baseline, allowing your PT to individualize their treatment plan. This process may be repeated every few sessions to gauge your recovery.
Learn more: How to treat a sprained ankle?
2) Reducing your symptoms
We use hands-on treatments, movement, and other non-invasive treatments to help with your symptoms. The most commonly used methods include (1):
- Cryotherapy. Helps reduce pain and swelling during the first week of your injury.
- Heat therapy. Can provide pain relief and improve blood flow.
- Electrotherapy. Temporarily blocks pain signals.
- Massage. Improves blood circulation to your muscles and reduces pain.
- Manual therapy. Reduces your pain sensitivity and increases your range of motion.
They can be used before or after each session, to make the exercises more tolerable and to avoid flare-ups afterward.
3) Adding more support to your ankle joint
Taping or wrapping an ankle is a great way to add stability while also restricting painful movements. This helps protect it from further injury.
There are three common types of bandages that your PT might use to do this (2):
- Athletic tape. Made from stiff, non-elastic material that is useful to restrict excess motions.
- Kinesio tape. A sticky, stretchy tape that helps enhance your position sense.
- Elastic bandage. Made from flexible yet compressive material, effective to reduce swelling.
4) Regaining your ankle range of motion
Range of motion (ROM) is the capacity of your joint to allow movement. Often limited after an acute ankle sprain, regaining it allows you to do tasks properly, like walking and climbing stairs.
Your PT uses different techniques to help you regain it, each more challenging than the previous one:
- Passive movements. Here, your PT grabs your ankle and moves it, while you keep it relaxed. It’s the first step for recovering ROM, usually done in the early stages.
- Active assisted motions. There is partial help, either from a PT or an object, to create movement on your ankle.
- Active motion exercise. You alone move the joint, with or without your physio’s supervision.
Here’s an example of one common active motion exercise, ankle circles:
- Sit on the chair or edge of your bed.
- Raise your injured ankle off the floor.
- Slowly rotate the ankle (not your leg) in a clockwise manner.
- Do this for 10 repetitions.
- Repeat in the opposite direction.
5) Improving your flexibility
Flexibility is your joint’s ability to smoothly move through your ROM. This makes your ankle adaptable to any type of surface, preventing re-injury.
To regain or improve this, your PT will teach you stretching exercises that target specific muscles. Doing them consistently makes your joint more flexible and resilient.
A wall calf stretch is a great example. Here is a step-by-step guide:
- Stand in front of a wall, about one foot away.
- Keep your heel on the ground and place the toes of your injured foot right on the wall.
- Keep your knees straight.
- Slowly shift your weight forward on your injured foot.
- You should feel the stretch at the back of your lower leg, right on your calf muscles.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat thrice.
6) Building your strength after an ankle sprain
Strengthening your ankles after a sprain will give you better support and prevent re-injury. (3)
Your PT may give you easy exercises to start with, like pushing your PT’s hand with your foot. This eventually progresses to more advanced exercises as soon as you can tolerate them.
This gradual progression stimulates healing and strengthens not only your muscles, but your ligaments as well. (4) And you will probably use various pieces of equipment along the way, such as:
- Ankle weights.
- Resistance bands.
- Weighted plates.
A banded calf press is one example of a common strengthening exercise. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit on the floor with your injured leg in front of you.
- Loop the middle of the resistance band around your foot while holding both ends.
- Slowly point your foot downward, pushing against the resistance band.
- Go back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
7) Enhancing your balance
Aside from ligaments, ankle sprains can also affect your ankle’s sense of position, also known as “proprioception.” This may result in re-injuries or chronic ankle instability – a long-term complication of sprains. (4)
These can easily be avoided with balance exercises, which often include:
- Standing on an unstable surface.
- Doing each balance exercise with your eyes closed.
- Doing ball catches while you do the exercise.
A common way to work on your ankle stability at home is by standing on one leg. Here’s how to do it:
- First, stand near a wall or place a chair with a backrest near you. This is for safety, as you can hold onto them if you feel like falling.
- Keep your back straight and your arms on your side.
- Bent the knee on your uninjured leg.
- Stand on your injured foot while looking forward.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Once you can do this confidently, try doing it while having your eyes closed.
8) Preparing you for your sporting activities
Most ankle sprains occur from sports. So if you’re an athlete or a weekend warrior, going to physical therapy will aid you in coming back stronger. (5)
Keep in mind that your treatment plan will differ from nonathletes, as you have different demands on your body. So, your plan may also include:
- Movement tests to detect and fix any movements that could make you prone to re-injury.
- Sport-specific drills to prepare you for the field.
- Using other recovery techniques, like dry needling.
How to choose a physical therapy clinic?
There are some key things to consider when it comes to choosing a PT clinic:
Going to PT is not a quick-fix solution. The frequency of your visit varies depending on your availability and the severity of your injury. This could mean having to go to the clinic several times per week.
Look for a clinic that’s accessible to you, whether because it’s close to your home or your work. This will save you valuable time and increase your likelihood of finishing your rehabilitation.
Good quality PT may come at a price. So don’t be afraid to ask if the clinic you are planning to go to is covered by your insurance or not.
This helps prevent the unexpected cost of frequent PT visits from taking a toll on your budget. If it is not covered, ask if the clinic has budget-friendly deals like promos or discounts.
Online and word-of-mouth reviews
A review offers you valuable insight from people who have tried and tested the clinic’s services. This makes it easier for you to decide if you plan to come through or not.
Nowadays, you can easily check online reviews from apps or social media pages. You can also ask a friend or relative who can vouch for the clinic’s services.
If you’re a healthy adult with no other injuries or health problems, look for a clinic that specializes in treating orthopedic cases. Finding one that focuses on foot and ankle injuries is much better.
But if you’re an athlete, it’s best to find a clinic that works with sports injuries.
This is because there are different fields in physical therapy. Narrowing down on a clinic with expertise in treating ankle sprains according to your lifestyle needs improves the quality of your care.
Multidisciplinary clinics work, too, as long as they have a physical therapist who specializes in your case.
How to get the most out of your physical therapy appointment?
Aside from doing your exercises, here are a few tips to maximize each of your PT sessions:
Most PT sessions last between 45 to 60 minutes. Arriving on time allows you to do your treatment properly without having to rush each session.
Always wear comfy clothes and shoes that you can easily remove – your PT might need to touch your ankle during the session. You may also have to do some exercises barefoot, to test your balance and/or check your form.
Be honest with your physical therapist
This is especially important during an assessment, as this will set the tone for your rehabilitation.
Also, don’t be afraid to tell your PT about any changes in pain or comfort during treatment. This will allow them to adjust and work with you better.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions
The best way to learn about your condition is to ask your PT about it. And the more you know, the faster you’ll recover.
If you think that your questions may seem a bit silly, don’t worry. Remember that the only silly question is the question that is never asked.
When should I start physical therapy for a sprained ankle?
Ideally, you should start physical therapy for a sprained ankle right away.
How long does it take to rehab a sprained ankle?
The length of rehab for a sprained ankle depends on the severity of the injury. Mild sprains take a couple of weeks, but severe ones often take months to heal.
What kind of physical therapist do I need?
The kind of physical therapist you needs will depend on your needs. But when in doubt, look for one who specializes in treating orthopedic injuries.
Conclusion: Can physical therapy help a sprained ankle?
You can always rely on physical therapy to get an accurate assessment and treatment for sprained ankles.
No two ankle sprains are the same, so each treatment plan should be personalized based on your needs and goals.
So if you want to take the hassle out of a sprained ankle, try physical therapy today!
- van den Bekerom, Michel P J et al. “What is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults?.” Journal of athletic training vol. 47,4 (2012): 435-43. DOI: 10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.14
- Kaminski, Thomas W et al. “Prevention of Lateral Ankle Sprains.” Journal of athletic training vol. 54,6 (2019): 650-661. DOI: 10.4085/1062-6050-487-17
- Bleakley, Chris M et al. “Rehabilitation Exercises Reduce Reinjury Post Ankle Sprain, But the Content and Parameters of an Optimal Exercise Program Have Yet to Be Established: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation vol. 100,7 (2019): 1367-1375. DOI: 10.1016/j.apmr.2018.10.005
- van Rijn, Rogier M et al. “Supervised exercises for adults with acute lateral ankle sprain: a randomised controlled trial.” The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 57,543 (2007): 793-800. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2151811/
- Melanson SW, Shuman VL. Acute Ankle Sprain. [Updated 2021 Jul 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459212/