How to Fix Chronic Ankle Instability: Effective Treatment Strategies

Dr. Courtney Conley (DC, BS’s in Kinesiology & Human Biology)

How to Fix Chronic Ankle Instability: Effective Treatment Strategies

Chronic ankle instability is a condition that affects many individuals, causing discomfort and hindering their ability to move freely. When the ligaments surrounding the ankle joint become weakened or damaged, the stability of the ankle is compromised, leading to recurring episodes of instability. This condition can arise from previous ankle sprains that were not adequately treated or rehabilitated, or it may result from certain anatomical factors that predispose individuals to ankle instability.

Addressing chronic ankle instability is essential for enhancing mobility, regaining confidence in daily activities, and improving overall well-being. Left untreated, chronic ankle instability can lead to recurrent sprains, joint damage, and limitations in physical activities. Therefore, understanding the underlying causes of chronic ankle instability and exploring effective treatment strategies is crucial in order to regain stability and prevent future complications.

In this article, we will delve into the causes and symptoms of chronic ankle instability and delve into various treatment options that can help individuals manage and potentially overcome this condition, allowing them to lead an active and pain-free lifestyle. Let's explore the intricacies of chronic ankle instability and discover how to address it effectively for improved ankle health and overall quality of life.

What is Chronic Ankle Instability?

Definition and Explanation of Chronic Ankle Instability

Chronic ankle instability is a condition characterized by a recurring sense of ankle joint instability and a feeling of giving way, even without any external force or trauma. It typically arises after a previous ankle sprain that has not fully healed or was not adequately rehabilitated. During a typical ankle sprain, the ligaments that support the ankle joint may stretch or tear, leading to pain and swelling. With proper care and rehabilitation, most ankle sprains heal well, and the ligaments regain their strength and stability.

However, in cases of chronic ankle instability, the ligaments do not fully heal, and the ankle joint remains vulnerable to repeated sprains and instability. As a result, individuals with chronic ankle instability often experience recurrent ankle sprains and a diminished sense of balance, making them susceptible to further injuries.

Common Causes of Chronic Ankle Instability

Several factors can contribute to the development of chronic ankle instability. The primary cause is an incomplete healing of the ligaments following an initial ankle sprain. When the ligaments do not heal properly, they become lax and lose their ability to provide adequate support to the ankle joint.

Additionally, certain anatomical factors may predispose individuals to chronic ankle instability. For instance, people with naturally looser ligaments, known as ligament laxity, may be more susceptible to ankle sprains and chronic instability. Moreover, individuals who engage in sports or activities that involve frequent changes in direction, sudden stops, or jumping are at a higher risk of experiencing ankle injuries and developing chronic ankle instability.

Individuals who also have more rigid feet, or even a big toe that is more rigid may be prone to recurrent ankle sprains. Hence we recommend an evaluation for further assessment.

Identification of Symptoms Associated with Chronic Ankle Instability

The symptoms of chronic ankle instability are characterized by a recurring sensation of the ankle giving way, especially on uneven surfaces or during physical activities. Individuals may also experience chronic pain and swelling around the ankle joint, which may worsen after physical exertion. Furthermore, chronic ankle instability can lead to a feeling of insecurity while walking or engaging in sports, affecting overall confidence and mobility.

It is essential to recognize these symptoms early on and seek appropriate medical attention to prevent further complications and improve the overall stability and function of the ankle joint. Addressing chronic ankle instability promptly can help individuals regain their ability to move freely without the fear of ankle sprains or instability, leading to an improved quality of life and enhanced physical activity.

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The Impact of Chronic Ankle Instability

Effects on Mobility and Physical Activities

Chronic ankle instability can significantly impact an individual's mobility and ability to engage in physical activities. The recurring feeling of the ankle giving way or being unstable can lead to a cautious and hesitant gait, affecting the individual's walking pattern. This altered gait may cause undue stress on other joints, such as the knee and hip, as the body compensates for the instability in the ankle.

Moreover, individuals with chronic ankle instability may avoid certain activities or sports that require quick changes in direction or lateral movements. They may feel limited in their participation in recreational activities, sports, or fitness routines due to the fear of exacerbating the condition or experiencing another ankle sprain. As a result, chronic ankle instability can reduce overall physical activity levels, leading to potential deconditioning and other health-related consequences.

Implications for the Quality of Life

The impact of chronic ankle instability goes beyond physical limitations and can affect an individual's overall quality of life. The constant fear of the ankle giving way or being unable to trust the stability of the joint can lead to heightened anxiety and stress. Simple daily tasks like walking on uneven surfaces or navigating stairs may become a source of worry and discomfort.

Additionally, chronic ankle instability may affect social interactions and participation in recreational activities with friends and family. Individuals may feel reluctant to engage in outings or events that involve prolonged standing or physical activities, leading to a sense of isolation or missing out on enjoyable experiences.

Increased Risk of Future Injuries and Complications

Untreated chronic ankle instability can result in a vicious cycle of recurrent ankle sprains and potential complications. Each subsequent ankle sprain can further weaken the ligaments and destabilize the joint, leading to even greater instability and a higher risk of future injuries. The ankle joint may become more susceptible to cartilage damage, arthritis, and chronic pain as a result of repeated trauma.

Moreover, the altered mechanics and instability in the ankle can contribute to an increased risk of injuries in other areas of the body. As individuals try to compensate for the ankle instability, they may develop biomechanical imbalances in the lower extremities, leading to problems such as knee pain, hip pain, and lower back pain.

In light of these significant implications, it is essential for individuals experiencing chronic ankle instability to seek appropriate treatment strategies and take proactive measures to address the condition. By doing so, they can improve mobility, enhance their overall quality of life, and reduce the risk of future injuries and complications. If you are local to Colorado, please visit Total Health Solutions or Kinetic Chiropractic for treatment or if you would like to see a Gait Happens Clinician online, you can book an appointment here.

chronic ankle instability

Treatment Strategies for Chronic Ankle Instability​

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the management of chronic ankle instability. It offers a structured and targeted approach to improving ankle strength, balance, and proprioception. Through tailored exercises and rehabilitation techniques, physical therapists aim to restore stability to the ankle joint and reduce the risk of future sprains.

Benefits of Physical Therapy for Ankle Stability

Physical therapy offers several benefits for individuals with chronic ankle instability. Therapists work closely with patients to design personalized exercise programs that address their specific weaknesses and imbalances. By focusing on strengthening the muscles around the ankle joint, particularly the muscles that control ankle movement, physical therapy can enhance joint stability and decrease the risk of instability.

Specific Exercises to Improve Strength, Balance, and Proprioception

Physical therapists prescribe a variety of exercises to improve ankle strength, balance, and proprioception. Proprioception refers to the body's ability to sense its position in space. Balance exercises challenge the ankle's stability and help individuals develop better control over their movements.

Common exercises include calf raises, ankle circles, single-leg balance drills, and exercises on unstable surfaces such as balance boards or foam pads. These exercises not only target the ankle but also engage the muscles of the lower leg and core, promoting overall stability and coordination.


With the initial onset of an ankle sprain, bracing can be extremely helpful and often necessary. However, we have found that patients tend to rely on the brace well after the tissues have healed. Our goal is not to rely on the brace but to improve the function of the ankle so braces are no longer needed. Remember if you are using a brace to do all of the work, your tissues don’t have to. If you don’t use it, you will lose it.

Ankle braces can provide additional support and stability to individuals with chronic ankle instability. These braces are designed to limit excessive ankle movement while still allowing a reasonable range of motion for normal activities.

Role of Ankle Braces in Supporting Unstable Ankles

Ankle braces work by restricting excessive side-to-side movement and preventing the ankle from rolling or giving way during physical activities. They act as external reinforcements to the ligaments and tendons, reducing the risk of further sprains and promoting a more secure feeling in the ankle.

Types of Ankle Braces and Their Effectiveness

There are different types of ankle braces available, ranging from lace-up braces to rigid hinged braces. The effectiveness of each type may vary depending on the individual's specific condition and needs. A healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist or orthopedic specialist, can recommend the most suitable type of ankle brace based on the severity of the instability and the individual's activity level.

Lifestyle Modifications

Lifestyle modifications play an essential role in managing chronic ankle instability and preventing its exacerbation.

Recommendations for Modifying Daily Activities to Avoid Exacerbating Instability

Engaging in low-impact exercises, such as swimming or cycling, can be beneficial for maintaining fitness without putting excessive stress on the ankles. If you want a 12-week program for reduced pain and symptoms and optimum foot health, try our Fit Feet Program, designed by clinicians and tailored to your feet.

Importance of Rest and Proper Footwear Choices

There is plenty of research stating that mild ankle sprains can actually have a worse prognosis due to the lack of attention that most individuals give them. With more severe sprains, clients will often brace/boot pending the severity allowing the tissues to heal. We highly recommend, even with mild ankle sprains, that you rest appropriately and not return to sport until the appropriate measures have been taken.

Allowing sufficient rest and recovery time between physical activities is crucial for giving the ankle a chance to heal and regain strength. Moreover, choosing appropriate footwear with good ankle support and stability can help reduce the risk of re-injury.

Surgical Options

We recommend that you see someone you trust that will do a thorough examination prior to surgery. Oftentimes, even with ligament tears, surgery is not necessary with the appropriate rehabilitation.

By combining physical therapy, bracing, lifestyle modifications, and, if necessary, surgical interventions, individuals can effectively address chronic ankle instability and regain stability and confidence in their daily activities. A comprehensive approach to treatment, along with a commitment to preventive measures, can significantly improve the quality of life for those affected by this condition.

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Preventive Measures for Chronic Ankle Instability

Chronic ankle instability can be effectively managed and potentially prevented through a combination of preventive measures. By adopting these strategies, individuals can reduce the risk of ankle injuries and enhance ankle stability for better overall foot health.

Proper Injury Management

Immediate Steps to Take After Ankle Injuries

When an ankle injury occurs, immediate action is crucial to minimize its impact and promote faster healing.

  • Compression: Use an elastic bandage or compression wrap to support the injured ankle and reduce swelling.
  • Weight bearing should be limited until pain begins to subside.
  • Moving the ankle in different directions in a NON WEIGHT bearing posture is good way to maintain mobility even in the initial stages

Importance of Seeking Professional Help for Proper Diagnosis and Treatment

Seeking professional help, such as consulting a healthcare provider or a sports medicine specialist, is essential after an ankle injury. Proper diagnosis through physical examination, imaging tests like X-rays or MRI scans, and a comprehensive evaluation can ensure that the extent of the injury is accurately assessed. Based on the diagnosis, the appropriate treatment plan, including physical therapy or surgical intervention if necessary, can be implemented.

Regular Strength and Balance Exercises

Implementing a Targeted Exercise Routine for Ankle Stability

Regular strength and balance exercises play a vital role in preventing chronic ankle instability. A targeted exercise routine that focuses on strengthening the muscles around the ankle joint can enhance stability and reduce the risk of re-injury. These exercises may include:

  • Ankle circles and alphabet exercises to improve range of motion.
  • Calf raises to strengthen the calf muscles, which support ankle stability.
  • Single-leg balance exercises to challenge ankle proprioception and improve balance.

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The Role of Proprioceptive Training in Preventing Re-Injuries

Proprioceptive training involves exercises that challenge the body's ability to sense its position in space, helping improve joint stability and coordination. Proprioceptive exercises, such as standing on one leg on an unstable surface, can be beneficial in preventing re-injuries and enhancing ankle stability.

Importance of Appropriate Footwear

Most individuals will think that a supportive shoe is necessary when dealing with any foot/ankle injury. This can often be the wrong advice as someone with a very rigid foot for example would actually be doing more harm than good in this type of footwear.

If you have concerns or specific requirements, consulting with a podiatrist or footwear specialist (If you are local to Colorado, please visit Total Health Solutions or Kinetic Chiropractic for treatment or if you would like to see a Gait Happens Clinician online, you can book an appointment here) can help you find the most suitable shoes for your needs.

The Impact of Footwear on Ankle Stability

Ill-fitting or unsupportive footwear can compromise ankle stability and increase the risk of chronic ankle instability. Wearing high heels or shoes with inadequate support may put excessive strain on the ankle ligaments and muscles, leading to instability over time.

By incorporating proper injury management, regular strength and balance exercises, and wearing the appropriate footwear, individuals can take proactive steps to prevent chronic ankle instability and maintain optimal ankle health. These preventive measures can help individuals lead active and pain-free lives while minimizing the risk of future ankle injuries.

Summing Up: Managing Chronic Ankle Instability

Chronic ankle instability is a condition that can significantly impact an individual's mobility and quality of life. Understanding its causes, symptoms, and available treatment options is crucial for effective management and long-term ankle health.

Recap of Chronic Ankle Instability and Its Causes

Chronic ankle instability is characterized by recurrent ankle sprains and a sense of instability in the affected ankle. It often develops following an initial ankle injury that was not properly treated or rehabilitated. Over time, the ligaments and surrounding structures of the ankle may weaken, leading to ongoing instability and a higher risk of re-injury.

Comprehensive Overview of Treatment Options: Physical Therapy, Bracing, Lifestyle Modifications, and Surgery

  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy plays a central role in managing chronic ankle instability. Therapists can design individualized exercise programs to strengthen the muscles around the ankle, improve balance, and enhance proprioception. These exercises aim to restore stability and reduce the risk of further ankle injuries.
  • Bracing: Ankle braces or supports can provide external stabilization to the ankle joint, helping prevent excessive movement and supporting weak ligaments. Braces come in various forms, from lace-up supports to semi-rigid braces, and their use can be beneficial during activities that involve increased stress on the ankle. These should be used only for a short period of time to ensure that the foot/ankle can regain strength
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Making certain lifestyle changes can contribute to better ankle health. This includes modifying daily activities that place strain on the ankle and avoiding activities that may exacerbate instability. Rest and appropriate footwear choices are also essential components of lifestyle modifications.
  • Surgery: In only the most severe cases of chronic ankle instability where conservative treatments have not provided adequate relief, surgical intervention may be considered. The specific surgical procedure will depend on the underlying anatomical issues and the extent of ligament damage.

exercie for ankle instability

Emphasis on Preventive Measures for Long-Term Ankle Health

Preventive measures play a critical role in managing chronic ankle instability and reducing the risk of future injuries. Proper injury management immediately after an ankle sprain can prevent complications and ensure a smoother recovery. Engaging in regular strength and balance exercises can enhance ankle stability and proprioception, thereby reducing the likelihood of re-injury. Additionally, wearing supportive footwear designed for specific activities can provide the necessary stability and cushioning to protect the ankles during daily tasks and physical activities.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is chronic ankle instability, and how does it present?

Chronic ankle instability refers to the condition where the ankle is susceptible to repeated sprains and feels unstable during movement. It often develops after a previous ankle injury that was not adequately treated or rehabilitated. Symptoms include recurrent ankle sprains, persistent discomfort, and a sensation of ankle weakness.

How can I identify the symptoms of chronic ankle instability?

Common symptoms include recurring ankle sprains, persistent discomfort, difficulty bearing weight on the affected ankle, and a feeling of ankle instability during activity.

What are the potential causes of chronic ankle instability?

Chronic ankle instability is frequently caused by inadequately healed ankle sprains that weaken the supporting ligaments over time.

What are the available treatment options for chronic ankle instability?

Treatment options vary depending on the severity of the condition. Conservative approaches include physical therapy to strengthen the ankle and improve balance, and making lifestyle modifications to reduce stress on the joint. In more severe cases, surgical intervention may be considered.

How does physical therapy help in addressing chronic ankle instability?

Physical therapy plays a vital role in managing chronic ankle instability. It involves exercises to strengthen the muscles around the ankle, enhance proprioception (joint position awareness), and improve overall ankle stability.

Are lifestyle modifications effective in managing chronic ankle instability?

Yes, lifestyle modifications are essential in managing chronic ankle instability. Avoiding activities that worsen instability, ensuring proper rest, and selecting appropriate footwear can significantly reduce strain on the ankle and support its recovery.

Is surgery an option for treating chronic ankle instability?

Surgery may be considered in severe cases of chronic ankle instability when conservative treatments have not been successful. The surgical procedure will depend on the specific anatomical issues and the extent of ligament damage.

How can I prevent chronic ankle instability?

Preventive measures include timely and appropriate management of ankle injuries, engaging in regular strength and balance exercises to enhance ankle stability, and using supportive footwear designed for specific activities.

How can I determine the best treatment approach for my chronic ankle instability?

For personalized treatment, it is crucial to consult a healthcare provider or sports medicine specialist. They can assess your specific condition, identify contributing factors, and recommend the most suitable treatment options for effective management.

Please note that the answers provided here are for informational purposes only and should not replace professional medical advice. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan based on your specific condition.

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