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What is Ankle Instability?

By M.R. Anglin
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A stable ankle is instrumental to a person’s ability to walk and run. When an ankle becomes sprained, the ligaments and muscles that support the ankle can become weak. Ankle instability occurs when a person’s ankle has become too weak to be reliable when walking, often following a series of sprains. A person with ankle instability may feel as if their ankle will give out when on rough or uneven terrain. This can make it difficult to walk, run or participate in normal activities.

Normally, an ankle has limited movement up and down and side to side. This range of motion is protected by ligaments and bones that keep the joints responsible for these movements steady. When a person sprains his ankle, the ligaments, or connective tissue that helps hold bones together, can stretch or tear. Repetitive spraining of the ankle can cause the ankle to become weak and feel unstable when a person is walking.

Spraining the ligaments in the ankle can also cause damage to the nerve sensors that tell the brain the position of the ankle. Sensors such as the ones found in the ankle ligaments are responsible for the brain knowing the position his hands, arms, and other parts of the body, even when a person is not paying attention to them. When these nerves sensors are damaged, it is easier for a person to misstep and do more damage to the ankle as a result.

Treatment options for ankle instability range from special shoes to rehabilitation to surgery. In some cases, it is possible to use braces or shoes with high tops or special heels to help keep the ankle steady while walking. It is also possible to treat ankle instability with strengthening exercises as prescribed by a physical therapist. The exercises strengthen the ligaments and muscles on the outside of the ankle to help keep it from buckling. These exercises can also help a person regain sensitivity by healing the nerve sensors, so he can tell where his foot is being placed.

There are times when rehabilitation is not enough to treat ankle instability. In these cases, surgery may be the method of choice. During surgery, the surgeon can either tighten the ligaments or graft in another ligament—usually harvested from around the little toe—to strengthen or replace the ankle ligament. In either case, surgery is usually followed by rest and rehabilitation. After rehabilitation, the patient usually is able to return to normal activities without experiencing ankle instability.

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Discussion Comments

By anon354468 — On Nov 08, 2013

I've had this for four years now, it's terrible, I've seen doctor after doctor and each one keeps giving me more insoles for my shoes and telling me to do these ankle movements to help it.

I've done them. I've worn the supports and nothing works. I sprain my ankle three to four times a month, and it's not even funny anymore because my job and my career I'm training for require me to be on my feet all day long, and when just walking is a hazard, it's hard for people to trust you.

My sensors have just stopped working, I don't know I'm going to go over on my ankle until I'm on the floor, it just stops working and then I'm in pain for the next week.

I need to find something that will work because I've been in constant pain for four years now.

By seag47 — On Aug 05, 2012

I had a swollen ankle for awhile after spraining it. I was walking down the steps and I missed one, and my foot turned under. It felt so wrong for it to turn that way, and my ankle immediately began to hurt.

After the pain subsided, I was left with swelling and instability. I felt as if I could not adequately control my foot as I walked, and I feared that I might reinjure my ankle because of this.

So, I got one crutch and hobbled around for a few days. My stability returned, and I could feel in control of my steps again.

By feasting — On Aug 05, 2012

@Kristee – It does seem terrifying. One time in my life, I was able to experience what a person with ankle instability feels like. That was when I went ice skating.

It takes really strong ankles to be able to maneuver yourself on ice skates, and I had no idea how weak mine actually were until I tried to stand up on these skates. My ankles wobbled from side to side terribly, and I had to hold onto a rail just to remain upright!

This was my little experience with ankle instability symptoms. However, I could get rid of mine simply by removing the skates. I can't imagine living like that for an extended period of time.

By Kristee — On Aug 04, 2012

Having chronic ankle instability would be awful! My nerve sensors are pretty keen right now, and I can tell when I twist even a little bit too far.

I would probably have to have a brace if my ankles were unstable. Just knowing that it could bend out of shape at any moment would be enough motivation for me to wear a brace all the time.

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