After an ankle injury or sprain, most athletes have the same question: "When can I get back to the game?" Too often, injured athletes are eager to rush back to their sports as soon as the pain lets up. But a lack of pain doesn't necessarily mean you're ready. Before returning to the demands of training and competition, you and your sports medicine team need to first test your body's ability to handle it. That process looks a bit different for everyone, but it's rarely a one-and-done process.
According to Jeremy T. Smith, MD, a foot and ankle orthopedic specialist at Mass General Brigham and orthopedic surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital, as an ankle injury patient, you'll have regular visits with the sports medicine care team while undergoing supervised physical therapy. These experts will work together to make sure you are meeting recovery milestones and to get you back on the field, court or track.
"There are a number of factors that determine how much time you'll need to fully recover, including: the type and severity of your injury (and the form of treatment you undergo), your health and age and, most importantly, your adherence to your physician's recommendations and physical therapist's program."
Your Recovery Timeline
Before you can get back to your sport, you must give the injured ankle tissues time to heal at a cellular level. Only then can you start to strategically load the tissue to help it rebuild, strengthen and prepare you for a safe and successful return to sport.
There are a number of factors that determine how much time you'll need to fully recover, including:
- The type and severity of your ankle injury (and the form of treatment you undergo)
- Your health and age
- Most importantly your adherence to your physician's recommendations and physical therapist's program
1) Type of Ankle Injury, Severity and Treatment
Ankle sprains, bone fractures, Achilles ruptures, torn ligaments and chronic tendinopathy are among the most common forms of ankle injury, Dr. Smith says. And the recovery for each of these varies.
For example, while someone might be able to return to sport one to two weeks after a very mild ankle sprain, it can take many athletes as many as six weeks to three months for ankle stability to significantly improve.
At the other end of the spectrum, severe Achilles tendon injuries or fractures often require surgery and can take upwards of a full year for the body to recover. People with acute Achilles tendon ruptures should not expect to resume their normal walking patterns until 12 to 18 weeks post-injury. These patients may be advised to avoid running and other non-contact sports for at least 16 to 20 weeks.
2) Health and Age
Your prior activity level, baseline muscle mass and bone density all play into your health, and all collectively help determine how long it will take you to recover post-injury. The healthier and more active you were prior to injury, the less time you can expect your recovery to take. And, the healthier you are, the greater the array of treatment options available to you—which can potentially mean a speedier return to sport. While a person in poor health might not be a good candidate for beneficial surgery, someone in good health might be.
While you can't change the past, everyone's ankle injury recovery can benefit from integrating healthy lifestyle habits like eating nutrient-dense foods and getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
3) Adherence to Your Recovery Plan
Right now, your sport is recovery. To progress at it, you need to show the same dedication you do to exciting interval and agility drills.
While the initial days and weeks of the recovery plan may seem boring, and it may be hard to see the relevance to your sport, it's important to trust the process. Understand that by following the more "boring" instructions early on, you can get back on the field with your teammates even quicker.
Try to think about your physical therapy recovery plan as a visual pyramid: The base or bottom layer includes the lower-level, stationary exercises. The peak of the pyramid is live, competitive play on the field. To reach the peak of your pyramid, you must follow the recovery plan exactly as instructed by your physical therapist; otherwise you may not be granted the metaphorical key to move on to the middle tier of exercises, which is a stepping stone to return to sport. Adhere to the basics early and it will pay off for you later on.