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Ask Dr. K: Build up weak ankles to minimize sprains

DEAR DOCTOR K: I tend to sprain my ankle fairly often. Are there any exercises that could help me strengthen my ankles and prevent future sprains?

DEAR READER: Your ankles are remarkable joints. They must bear the full weight of your body, yet stay nimble and flexible. Every step, every jump, every move puts your ankles through a surprising range of motion. Even when you stand quietly, your ankles are constantly making minute adjustments to help you stay balanced.

Your central ankle bone is called the talus. Your shin bone, the large bone in your lower leg, connects to the talus. A second, smaller bone in the lower leg ends alongside the talus. Bracketed by two bony bumps (each called a malleolus) on either side of the ankle, the talus acts as a hinge that allows you to point and flex your foot.

Two other joints on the talus permit sideways movements. Two ligaments (the strong, usually inelastic, tissue that bind joints) link the inner malleolus to the ankle bones. Three more ligaments bind the outer malleolus to the talus and heel bone. Ligaments play an important role in ankle anatomy and sprains.

Ankle sprains occur when you roll your foot inward or outward, or turn or twist an ankle. The most common cause of an ankle sprain is when your foot comes down on the floor or ground landing on the outer edge of the foot. The force of your weight on the outer edge puts a great strain on the ligaments of the outer part of your ankle.

That stretches, or even tears, the ligaments that keep the bones and joints properly positioned.

The same injuries that cause ankle sprains can also cause ankle fractures. Weak ankles not only have a tendency toward repeated sprains; they also are more easily fractured.

Weak ankles often can be traced to repeated sprains that loosen the ligaments — and loose ligaments increase the risk of future ankle sprains.

However, loose ligaments are not the only reason ankles have a tendency to suffer from sprains. Weakness of muscles that support the ankle also make sprains more likely. That’s where exercises come in.

You’re likely to benefit from an ankle workout that incorporates strength exercises and stretches that will help you increase flexibility and build ankle-supporting muscles.

If possible, work with a physical therapist. He or she can design an individualized program to meet your needs. In the meantime, I’ve put a few ankle-strengthening exercises on my website, AskDoctorK.com.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School.

Questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)

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