Wobbly, painful ankles can signal chronic instability

November 18, 2022

Orthopedics Primary Care Healthy Aging
Ankle Instability

Many active kids and adults sprain their ankle a time or two, whether they slip on an uneven surface or hurt it playing a sport. Most of the time, the ankle heals and they forget all about it. 

However, when someone repeatedly sprains an ankle, it can eventually lead to ankle instability – weakness in the outer part of the ankle that causes it to give way. 

“Chronic ankle instability can develop when a sprained ankle hasn’t healed properly,” says J.R. Barley, D.O., a Riverside sports medicine physician. “When you sprain an ankle, you can stretch and possibly tear ligaments. The more sprains you experience, the more unstable the ankle will be.” 

What causes chronic ankle instability? 

Injuries to the lateral – or outside – ankle ligaments, which attach bones to other bones, are the most common cause of ankle instability. 

Other causes include: 

  • Arthritis in the ankle joint 
  • Fractures in the ankle joint 
  • Inflammation of the joint lining
  • Nerve injury in the ankle
  • Scar tissue in the ankle after a sprain that puts pressure on ligaments 
  • Torn or inflamed tendons, which are fibers that connect muscles to bone

When should I see a doctor for an ankle injury?

“People with ankle instability can experience chronic pain and swelling,” Barley says. “Their ankle can also feel wobbly, making them more susceptible to injuries.” 

If this occurs regularly, it’s time to see a doctor. You can start with a primary care physician but will likely get referred to an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist.

The specialist will ask you about previous ankle injuries and instances of instability, examine your ankle for swelling and mobility and will likely order X-rays or other imaging studies.

Treatment for ankle instability 

Your health provider will look for nonsurgical solutions first. You may need to wear a brace or take anti-inflammatory medication. Your doctor may also prescribe physical therapy to strengthen the ankle, improve balance, increase range of motion and retrain muscles.

For those who have injured their ankle by participating in sports, a therapist may work with them on better techniques to try to prevent further injuries. 

In some cases, surgery may be necessary to improve ankle instability. These procedures may include: 

  • Cleaning (debriding) the joint or joint surface
  • Removing loose fragments
  • Repairing or reconstructing ligaments or tendons

Riverside foot and ankle specialists can diagnose and treat ankle instability. Our sports medicine hotline gives you direct access to our sports medicine team. Get answers to clinical questions, advice or make an appointment with an orthopedic sports medicine expert by calling 757-534-6767.


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