5 ways physical therapy can help you address ankle pain when walking

Ankle pain can cause many issues in your day-to-day life. Exercise becomes trickier, ordinary activities such as walking may be difficult, and even just standing or getting around the house can feel like a challenge.


Ankle pain can put a real damper on your active life, especially as you age. Nearly 12% of older adults report dealing with symptoms of ankle pain, and those numbers were higher for people with routine or manual occupations. But if you start feeling ankle pain while walking, you don’t have to let ankle pain control your life. Let’s take a look at how physical therapy can improve your ankle pain and get you moving again.


What causes ankle pain?


Ankle pain can be rooted in many things, including injuries, underlying diseases, and general wear and tear. Here’s a list of some common causes of ankle pain that you may be experiencing:


  • Arthritis — Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can both cause pain in your ankles. With osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage can break down with wear and tear, causing inflammation and pain in the ankle. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when your immune system is dysfunctional and attacks your joints. Pain and stiffness in your joints are both common symptoms of arthritis.


  • Tendinitis — If you get a tear or rupture in your Achilles tendon, you may experience tendinitis in your ankle. This is most often caused due to injury, improper stretching before exercise, or overuse over a long period of time. You may experience pain or a bump where the tendon at the back of your leg meets your heel.


  • Gout — Gout is a form of arthritis that’s caused by too much uric acid in your body. This buildup can make needle-like crystals form in your joints. Gout can cause sudden pain, redness, swelling and stiffness in your big toe, ankle or knee. 


  • Ankle fracture — Three bones make up your ankle: the tibia or shinbone, the fibula, and the talus. If any of these bones cracks or breaks, it can cause significant ankle pain. You may notice pain, bruising and swelling in the ankle area. Seek treatment from your doctor if you think you have a fractured or broken ankle.


  • Sprained ankle — A sprain is a tear in the ligaments that hold your ankle bones together. This most often occurs when your foot rolls sideways or bends in a way it isn’t meant to. You may experience bruising or swelling, and if the pain doesn’t resolve itself within a few days, you may need a cast or walking boot.


  • Bursitis — Two fluid-filled sacs called bursae cushion the space between the tendons and the bones in your foot. However, if these sacs become irritated or inflamed, they can cause a condition known as bursitis. This can make your ankle feel stiff, tender, warm and swollen. 


  • Chronic lateral ankle pain — Ongoing pain in and around your ankle can have many causes. Most likely, it’s because a sprained ligament didn’t heal properly. This can cause weakness in the joint and make it easier for you to re-injure yourself if you don’t address the root cause of the pain.


  • High ankle sprain — If you have pain in your ankle but aren’t experiencing swelling, you may have what’s called a high ankle sprain. High ankle sprains affect the ligaments between your tibia and fibula, which are found just above your ankle joint.


There are many forms of ankle pain, and you may find it difficult to identify the cause of your discomfort. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist if you’re dealing with consistent ankle pain so they can help you find the root cause of it. 


If you’re dealing with mild ankle pain, there are at-home treatments you can try to alleviate your discomfort. The best treatment to start with is generally the RICE method:


  • Rest — Don’t overexert your injured ankle. Make sure you rest your injury as much as possible to give it a chance to heal.


  • Ice — Cold can decrease swelling and offer some pain relief. For best results, ice your injury for 20 minutes at a time.


  • Compress — Use an elastic bandage to compress your injury and help prevent further swelling in your ankle.


  • Elevate — Sit or lie down and prop your ankle up so it’s resting above your heart. This will decrease blood flow to the area and can help reduce swelling and pain.


If the RICE method doesn’t alleviate your pain within a few days, there may be a deeper issue that needs to be resolved. This is where going to a physical therapist can help you address your underlying issues.


How physical therapy can address ankle pain


Your ankle pain may not go away on its own. It’s better to be proactive and seek treatment for your condition before it gets worse. Physical therapy is an excellent way to address your chronic pain and find healing. Here’s a list of some physical therapy treatments that can help you deal with your ankle pain:


  • Manual therapyManual therapy is when your physical therapist uses their hands to stretch, engage and mobilize your joints. Your physical therapist may be able to use manual therapy to increase mobility and movement in your ankle joint. This can help relieve pain and inflammation.


  • Joint mobilization — This type of manual therapy targets the ankle joint specifically instead of the muscles and tendons surrounding the joint. Joint mobilization can help improve range of motion with slow, repetitive movements in the joint to help loosen up stiffness and increase flexibility. 


  • Therapeutic exercises — Your physical therapist may recommend certain exercises to do during your sessions or at home. Some exercises can even target specific causes of ankle pain such as tendinitis and bursitis.


  • Kinesiology taping — This method of taping can help stabilize your ankle joint. The goal of kinesiology taping is to help reduce pressure on the joint itself and support the surrounding muscles when you move.


  • Trigger point therapy — Trigger points are places in the body that can send pain signals to other parts of the body when pressed. You may feel pain and stiffness in one area because the trigger point connected to that joint or muscle is compressed. The goal of trigger point therapy is to reduce pain at the trigger point site as well as the referred area.


While your physical therapist will design a unique treatment plan curated to your needs, these are some common forms of physical therapy that they may use. Depending on what’s causing your ankle pain, your treatment may differ.


How to prevent ankle pain when walking


If you have ongoing ankle pain but don’t want to compromise on your active lifestyle, there are steps you can take to reduce or prevent ankle pain while walking. Let’s take a look at some smart ways to support your ankle health:


  • Wear the right shoes — If you’re dealing with ankle pain when walking, comfort over style is the way to go. Make sure your shoes have good support and that they fit your feet well. Since everyone’s feet are different, you may need to try on a few different pairs before you find the one for you. Foot inserts that go into your shoes can also alleviate foot and ankle pain in some cases. Talk to your doctor about what support is right for you.


  • Stretch regularly — The best way to prevent pain while walking is to prepare beforehand. A lack of flexibility can contribute to a number of different ankle injuries. If you stretch before you start walking, you’ll loosen up those ligaments and tendons, making a mishap less likely. Stretching for just 10 minutes a day may be enough to prevent ankle injuries.


  • Listen to your body — While it’s important to exercise and stay active, you have to pay attention to what your body’s telling you. If a sport or activity is causing you ankle pain, you either need to change your approach to the activity or consider choosing a different one. If you push your body beyond its limits, you will eventually hurt yourself.


  • Work on your balance — Poor balance increases your risk of falling and developing foot or ankle problems, especially as you age. If you work actively on maintaining your balance,  you’re less likely to risk injuring yourself. Try balancing on one leg for 10 to 20 seconds, and then repeating on the other side. This is a simple way to strengthen your balance and help you prevent more injuries.


While prevention is a great tool to use, you can’t totally eliminate the possibility of getting injured. But you don’t have to deal with an ankle injury for life. Lattimore Physical Therapy can help you get back to the active lifestyle you love. When you’re ready to talk through your options, contact our team for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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