The ankle is where the talus bone of the foot and the tibia (shin bone) and fibula of the leg connect and move. Trauma here can cause a break in any or all of these bones and significant pain usually results immediately after the injury. If you suspect you have a broken bone in your ankle, your first step should be to seek medical attention immediately. Failure to do so may result in significant loss of function.
Ankle fractures almost always occur during a traumatic event to the body. Automobile accidents, falls, and sports injuries can all lead to ankle fractures. Common signs of an ankle fracture include pain, swelling, bruising, and an inability to bear weight on the broken ankle.
What to Expect After an Ankle Fracture
While at the hospital following an ankle fracture, your doctor will attempt to reduce the fracture. This procedure helps to align the broken bones and allow for normal healing to take place. If the break is severe, a surgical procedure may be performed called an open reduction internal fixation (ORIF). During this procedure, your surgeon will align the broken bones and then hold the bones in place with metal rods and screws.
After your ankle fracture is reduced, your ankle will most likely be casted. This immobilizes the ankle and allows the bones to heal properly. Many times after an ankle fracture, you will require some sort of assistive device to walk. You may also be under specific weight bearing restrictions. Be sure to ask your doctor how much weight you are allowed to put on your ankle as it heals.
Physical Therapy After an Ankle Fracture
Once your fracture is reduced and immobilized, you may be referred to physical therapy to learn how to use your assistive device like crutches, a cane, or a walker. Your physical therapist should also be able to help you understand your weight bearing restrictions. Gentle exercise for the muscles of the knee and hip may be performed to ensure that the muscle groups that help you walk do not get too weak while the fracture heals. If you are in a cast or a brace, most likely you will not be performing exercises for your ankle.
After your fractured ankle has healed, your doctor will remove the cast and allow you to bear more weight on your ankle. You still may be using an assistive device like a quad cane or crutches to walk.
At this point, your physical therapist can fully evaluate your ankle to help provide the proper treatment. Components of the ankle evaluation may include:
After a thorough evaluation, your physical therapist can begin providing treatment. He or she may use therapeutic modalities like heat, ice, or electrical stimulation to help treat swelling or pain around your ankle.
Exercise should be a main component of your ankle rehabilitation following a fracture. Exercises to improve ankle range of motion and strength are paramount. Exercises for the hips and knees may be used as well. Most likely you will be required to perform a home exercise program. Be sure to follow your physical therapist's directions closely and ask questions if you have any.
Wolff's law states that bone grows and remodels in response to the stress that is placed upon it. Your physical therapist can help prescribe exercises that apply the right stress in the correct direction to ensure that maximal bone healing occurs and that your fractured ankle will function properly.
Gait training will also be important following an ankle fracture. Your physical therapist can help you progress from using an assistive device to walking independently.
If you have had surgery to reduce your ankle fracture, there may be scar tissue around the incision. Your physical therapist can perform scar tissue massage and mobilization to help improve mobility of the scar. He or she can also teach you how to perform scar massage techniques on your own.
An ankle fracture can lead to significant loss of function and limit your ability to walk, run or participate fully in work and recreational activities. Physical therapy after an ankle fracture can help you improve mobility and help you safely return to normal activity and function.
Safran, M., Stone, D., & Zachazewski, J. (2003). Instructions for sports medicine patients. Philadelphia: Saunders.