Many of us have an old injury that we can’t seem to completely put in our past. An ankle that we sprained years ago; it feels back to normal most of the time, but we continue to resprain it much more easily. Oftentimes people will refer to this as their “weak ankle”, (knee, etc.) More than likely this ankle is not truly weak. Instead, the nervous system in this portion of the body needs to be addressed.
I experienced this myself many years ago. I was recently out of college and sprained my knee while skiing. The following summer I did a cross country cycling trip for 8 weeks, so by the end of summer that puppy was STRONG. The following ski season, however, the knee did not feel quite right. My perception was that it wasn’t as “strong” as the other side. It just didn’t feel as stable.
Our bodies have specialized nerve receptors (proprioceptors) in our muscles, as well as near and in our joints. These receptors give feedback to our brain regarding joint and limb positioning. They rapidly tell our brain where our body parts are in space; this enables us to make quick adjustments as necessary to prevent injury.
When we injure an area, like the ankle, in addition to injuring ligaments and other soft tissue we also injure the local proprioceptors. Unless we specifically retrain these specialized nerve receptors, our brain gets faulty information from that body region going forward. This misinformation makes it much easier to resprain that ankle as we step into an unexpected pothole.
Strengthening is an important part of rehabbing an injury, but strengthening alone won’t make an injured area feel completely stable and “normal”. Exercises to retrain the proprioceptors are also necessary to get back to 100%.
Proprioceptive exercises vary somewhat, depending upon the body region. For the majority of lower body injuries (lower back, hip, knee, foot and ankle), balance training is a great form of proprioceptive exercise. There are thousands of options, and lots of equipment marketed for this task. I’ve included a few that are easy to do anywhere, and don’t require spending a lot of money. These exercises are intended for old injuries, where pain and inflammation are no longer present.
With all of these exercises, stand close to a fixed object that can be used to stabilize yourself if needed. Examples are a kitchen sink or a door frame.
Stand on the affected side, with the other foot suspended at your side. Looking forward, raise both arms overhead 10 times. Try the same thing with light weights (small water bottles will do).
Next, in the same position try slightly turning the head side to side. Start with small turns, then increase as able.
In the same starting position, pretend that you are standing in the center of a square. Lightly touch the four corners with the opposite foot. To make this more difficult, hover above the corners but don’t actually touch the floor.
These same three exercises can be repeated while standing on a balance device. One option is a towel folded lengthwise, rolled tightly, then taped. You can stand on the towel roll lengthwise or crosswise.
A final progression could be to do the above exercises while standing in a table top position. The unaffected side is held in the air, 90 degrees at the hip, 90 degrees at the knee, so that the thigh is parallel to the floor.
Try working on these exercises a few times per week. Retraining the injured proprioceptors will improve balance, and decrease the likelihood of future injuries.
Best wishes for healthy mobility!
For educational purposes only. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.