Ankle sprains are some of the most common injuries in the U.S. A 2016 study published in the journal Sports Health estimates they land people in the emergency room more than one million times every year. Other estimates are even higher: 28,000 per day, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association. Lateral ankle sprains—the kind that happens when you “roll” your ankle on the outside of your foot, also called an inversion—are by far the most common.
We know that ankle sprains happen a lot, but what can be done to prevent them? First, let’s be clear about exactly what an ankle sprain is. Sprain is a general term used to describe injury or damage to a ligament, which is a tough, fibrous band of tissue that connects two bones.
In the case of a lateral ankle sprain, one or more of the ligaments that connect the tibia (leg bone) to the talus (ankle bone) or calcaneus (heel bone) are the ones most often injured.
Strong Ankles Mean Strong Muscles
The good news is you can prevent ankle sprains, and there are a variety of tools to help you do so. Many are focused on pieces of equipment—which certainly have their place—but one thing you’ll always have with you is your own strength.
Strong ankles mean strong calves, and strong calves mean strong peroneal muscles. Most people think of the gastrocnemius muscle when they think of the calf of the leg, but when it comes to ankle sprain prevention, the peroneal muscles are more important.
There are two peroneal muscles: the peroneus longus and the peroneus brevis. Both attach at the fibula (one of the lower leg bones) and to different bones of the foot. The reason they are so important in preventing ankle sprains is because they are the only muscles that control the opposite motion of inversion, called eversion. The stronger the peroneal muscles are, the better able the body is to correct itself when you roll your ankle.
It’s Gotta Be the Shoes
Some footwear results in a much greater risk of a sprained ankle than others. Unfortunately, ladies, high heels can be very dangerous for your ankles. If you simply must wear heels, try to keep them as low as possible and opt for a wider heel rather than a narrower stiletto-type. Overall, you should look for shoes that provide a maximum amount of stability, such as ones with a wider toe box.
When it comes to athletic shoes, studies have shown very little difference between high tops and low for the prevention of ankle sprains, according to most scientific research. One study analyzed the shoes worn by college basketball players—basketball is one of the riskiest sports for ankle sprains—who sprained their ankles and determined that shoe design was not a factor.
If you’re an athlete, bracing or taping your ankle is a very good way to protect yourself from ankle injury. These techniques can help prevent the extreme range of motion that can cause a sprain. Some researchers believe the tape or brace can activate receptors in the skin that, trigger the peroneal muscles, and that the tape or brace may also provide a psychological benefit—you feel safer with ankle support.
Custom foot supports, known as orthotics, can also help bring stability to your foot and ankle. They can help with your posture, which in turn can help protect you from rolling over your ankle and spraining it.
In my practice, I’ve seen and treated hundreds of ankle sprains. I know how painful they can be and how they can happen more easily after the first time. That’s why I’m passionate about preventing ankle sprains in the first place. Request an appointment with me or one of my colleagues to discuss a personalized plan for keeping your ankles safe.