Chronic Ankle Pain: Often Caused by Weak Ankles, 5 Exercises to Strengthen and Prevent Injury

Easy Exercises to Combat Chronic Pain (Part 4)

Health Viewpoints

Follow the series “Easy Exercises to Combat Chronic Pain” here.

In this series, occupational therapist Kevin Shelley focuses on common issues associated with chronic pain and simple exercises to strengthen weak muscles and enhance joint mobility, with the goal of helping you become pain-free.

Your ankles and surrounding muscles absorb a lot of force as you move throughout your day. If they’re weak, you’ll be more susceptible to an injury such as a sprain, which can easily occur by rolling your ankle while playing sports, or simply stepping off a curb. An unexpected sprain can take you out of commission for weeks.

Ongoing ankle pain may be linked to injury to the bones, ligaments, or tendons, as well as different types of arthritis. Making sure the ankle has adequate support from surrounding muscles and tendons is key to its healthy function.

Ankle exercises can help you strengthen weak ankles and adjoining ligaments, which can prevent painful injuries and improve your mobility and stability. Maintaining strong ankles will also keep you from putting extra strain on your knees and hips.

“Flexibility and strength contribute to happy ankles,” Mahesh Kodikalla, a geriatric physical therapist and fall prevention expert, told The Epoch Times.

The Muscle Groups of the Ankle

The ankle has two major muscle groups: the foot dorsiflexors on the front of the lower leg, and the foot plantar flexors on the back of the lower leg.

Foot Plantar Flexors

Plantar flexion occurs when you point your toes or stand on the tips of your toes with activities such as:

  • Standing on the tip of your toes to reach for something high.
  • Pressing down on the gas pedal of your car while driving.

Foot Dorsiflexors

Foot dorsiflexors allow you to flex your foot in the”dorsal” or upward direction, bending the ankle toward your shin.

Full ankle dorsiflexion is essential to maintaining good posture and for movements like walking, running, jumping, and squatting.

Having tight ankles can cause you to compensate and develop undesirable issues such as plantar fasciitis, inside knee pain, and other painful conditions.

Common Causes of Ankle Pain

The ankle is a complex arrangement of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Many things can contribute to ankle pain, but experiencing pain in otherwise healthy ankles can often be attributed to functional patterns and muscle weakness, explained Mr. Kodikalla.

Functional Patterns

  • Excessive running or jumping can put considerable compressive force on the ankle and can provoke pain.
  • Walking on uneven surfaces with weak ankle muscles and tendons can create problems, especially with repetitive movements.
  • Improperly fitting shoes without adequate support can put stress on your ankles, making them more prone to weakness and injury.
  • A sedentary lifestyle will allow the ankle muscles and tendons to weaken, making you more susceptible to injury.

Muscle Weakness

Ankle pain can often originate from muscle weakness. For example, weak plantar flexor muscles can lose their ability to support the foot and ankle during walking and running, creating alignment imbalances that eventually can lead to painful conditions, explained Mr. Kodikalla.

Fortunately, many people find that a regimen of simple, safe, and effective exercises can keep their ankles strong and pain-free.

Exercises to Strengthen the Ankles

Mr. Kodikalla recommends doing bodyweight exercises to strengthen the ankles since when performed properly, they are very effective and allow you to exercise anywhere.

Sitting Alphabet

The sitting alphabet exercise is a fantastic way to engage all of the tendons, ligaments, and muscles that support the ankles.

It’s best to start with this exercise to warm up before doing other exercises, said Mr. Kodikalla.

Epoch Times Photo
(Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Step 1: Sit in a chair. Alternatively, you can perform this movement in a standing position as long as you hold on to something like a chair or counter for stability.

Step 2: Extend one foot out until your knee is straight, your foot is off the ground, and your toes are pointed.

Step 3: Begin writing the alphabet in the air with your big toe, making the letters about a foot tall.

Step 4: Complete 10 to 30 repetitions per set and try to do two sets. For fun, you can do uppercase and lowercase letters; try writing in cursive for an extra challenge.

Resist using your leg to do all of the movements. Instead, try to use your ankle for as many of the movements as possible. Don’t bounce or rush the movements; instead, take two to three seconds to write each letter. Try to be accurate with the letters.

“I always tell my patients to demonstrate good penmanship,” said Mr. Kodikalla.

Standing Calf Raise

The standing calf raise focuses on the plantar flexors on the back of the calf, especially the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, which are critical for pushing through the end of leg travel during walking and running.

Epoch Times Photo
(Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Step 1: Stand up on a flat surface. You can hold on to a chair, table, or counter for stability.

Step 2: Place your feet side by side.

Step 3: Slowly move up on your toes as far as you can. Hold for one second and then lower back down.

Step 4: Complete 10 to 30 repetitions per set and try to do two sets.

Be sure not to bounce or rush the movements. Pay attention to your body and don’t push into pain or discomfort.

It’s important to not be overly aggressive; take your time and focus on proper form at first, advised Mr. Kodikalla.

Standing Single-Leg Heel Raise

Similar to the standing calf raise, this exercise works the same muscles but boasts considerably higher intensity because it is performed on only one leg instead of two.

Epoch Times Photo
(Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Step 1: Stand up on a flat surface while holding on to a stabilizing surface.

Step 2: Lift one foot off the floor.

Step 3: Push up on your toes with your standing leg, while keeping it straight.

Step 4: Complete 10 to 30 repetitions per set and try doing two sets.

Take a second to move in either direction and don’t bounce or rush the movements. This exercise places considerable demands on your calf muscles, so listen to your body and don’t push into pain or discomfort.

You can bend forward at the hips during this exercise at first to reduce the amount of weight your leg has to lift.

Single-Leg Towel Stance

Instead of targeting a specific muscle, this advanced exercise effectively targets every part of the ankle. The single-leg towel stance is an advanced activity that provides small, fast-paced balance movements.

Epoch Times Photo
(Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Step 1: Fold a large towel several times and place it on the floor near a supportive surface like a countertop.

Step 2: Stand in front of the supportive surface and grasp it with both hands.

Step 3: Step onto the towel with one of your feet. The towel must be large enough to accommodate your entire foot.

Step 4: Lift your other foot off the floor.

Step 5: While standing on the towel with one foot, try lifting your hands a few inches off the counter while maintaining your balance with the foot standing on the towel.

Step 6: Try to stand in place for 30 seconds, then repeat the exercise with your other foot. Perform this three times with each leg.

Keep your hands close to the stabilizing surface at all times to maximize your safety.

This exercise can be quite challenging at first, so don’t give up if it’s difficult—the more you do it, the easier it will become.

Seated Toe Raises

While several of these exercises focus on the muscles on the back of the lower leg, seated toe raises focus on the dorsiflexor muscles in front, especially the tibialis anterior, which will help you to increase your ability to raise your foot during walking and running.

Epoch Times Photo
(Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Step 1: Sit in a chair with your back straight.

Step 2: Place your feet side-by-side on the floor.

Step 3: Keeping your heels on the floor, lift your toes up as high as they can go.

Step 4: Complete 10 to 30 repetitions per set and try to do two sets.

Don’t bounce or rush the movements. Take a second to move in either direction and be sure you lift your toes all the way up in order to get the most out of this exercise.

You can make this exercise more challenging by resting the heel of one foot on the toes of the foot being exercised.

While it’s important to pay attention to functional patterns that may be responsible for ankle problems, being proactive by doing exercises to strengthen your ankle muscles can go a long way. Performing these exercises at least three times per week will help prevent painful injuries, improve your mobility and stability, and will put less strain on your hips and knees.

*If you have health or mobility issues that may present problems, consult with your physician before commencing exercise activity.

Next: Chronic elbow pain isn’t something you should have to live with. Specific exercises can stretch and strengthen the soft tissues of the elbow to expedite the healing process.

Read the entire “Easy Exercises to Combat Chronic Pain” series here.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Epoch Health welcomes professional discussion and friendly debate. To submit an opinion piece, please follow these guidelines and submit through our form here.

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Kevin Shelley is a licensed occupational therapist with over 30 years of experience in major health care settings. He is a health columnist for The Epoch Times.
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