Understanding and treating lateral ankle sprains and their consequences: a constraints-based approach

Sports Med. 2013 Jun;43(6):385-93. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0043-z.


Lateral ankle sprains are a common consequence of physical activity. If not managed appropriately, a cascade of negative alterations to both the joint structure and a person's movement patterns continue to stress the injured ligaments. These alterations result in an individual entering a continuum of disability as evidenced by the ~30 % of ankle sprains that develop into chronic ankle instability (CAI) and up to 78 % of CAI cases that develop into post-traumatic ankle osteoarthritis (OA). Despite this knowledge, no significant improvements in treatment efficacy have been made using traditional treatment paradigms. Therefore, the purpose of this review is to (1) provide an overview of the consequences associated with acute lateral ankle sprains, CAI and post-traumatic ankle OA; (2) introduce the patient-, clinician-, laboratory (PCL)-oriented) model that addresses the lateral ankle sprains and their consequences from a constraints perspective; and (3) introduce the dynamic systems theory as the framework to illustrate how multiple post-injury adaptations create a singular pathology that predisposes individuals with lateral ankle sprains to fall into a continuum of disability. The consequences associated with lateral ankle sprains, CAI and ankle OA are similar and encompass alterations to the structure of the ankle joint (e.g. ligament laxity, positional faults, etc.) and the sensorimotor function responsible for proper ankle joint function (e.g. postural control, gait, etc.). Further, the impairments have been quantified across a range of patient-oriented (e.g. self-report questionnaires), clinician-oriented (e.g. bedside measures of range of motion and postural control), and laboratory-oriented (e.g. arthrometry, gait analysis) outcome measures. The interaction of PCL-oriented outcomes is critically important for understanding the phenomenon of CAI across the continuum of disability. Through the integration of all three sources of evidence, we can clearly see that an ankle sprain is more than just a peripheral musculoskeletal pathology with only local consequences. The dynamic systems theory illustrates that the organization of human movement/function is shaped by the interaction of (1) organismic constraints (health of the person); (2) task constraints; and (3) environmental constraints. However, ankle sprains increase the organismic constraints (i.e. changes in joint structure and sensorimotor function) that significantly hinder an individual's function and may be the underlying cause for the continuum of disability associated with CAI. To treat and/or prevent an individual from entering the continuum of disability, greater protection of the ankle ligaments is needed immediately after injury. Subsequent rehabilitation should then focus on goal-oriented rehabilitation (i.e. quality of the movement pattern) rather that task-oriented rehabilitation (i.e. do these exercises). When evaluating patients with ankle inversion trauma and/or instability, it is imperative to remember that an ankle sprain is not simply a local joint injury; it can result in a constrained sensorimotor system that leads to a continuum of disability and life-long consequences such as high injury recurrence and decreased quality of life if not managed properly.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ankle Injuries / complications*
  • Ankle Injuries / rehabilitation
  • Ankle Joint / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Joint Instability / etiology*
  • Joint Instability / prevention & control
  • Ligaments, Articular / physiopathology*
  • Osteoarthritis / etiology*
  • Osteoarthritis / prevention & control
  • Range of Motion, Articular