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SportsMed News

What Is the Recovery Time for a Broken Ankle?

May 14, 2024

As an athlete, a broken ankle can sideline you from the sports you love. It can affect your daily life even if you aren’t an athlete. But with the right recovery plan, you can return to normal function in no time.

While most people can expect at least 6-10 weeks before putting weight on the affected ankle and resuming light activities, complex fractures can take months to heal fully.

How Serious Is a Broken Ankle?

The seriousness of a broken ankle can vary greatly depending on the type of fracture and the bones involved.

The Ankle Joint

The ankle joint is a complex hinge joint where the shinbone (tibia) and calf bone (fibula) meet the talus (talus bone) of the foot. Ligaments hold these bones together and provide stability to the joint. Several smaller bones and cartilage also contribute to its structure.

Severity of a Broken Ankle

A broken ankle can range from a minor crack in one bone to a complex fracture involving multiple bones and ligaments. Symptoms can also vary depending on the severity of the break.

See a doctor immediately after an ankle injury if you experience any of the following:

  • Severe pain and swelling in the ankle
  • Deformity of the ankle
  • Inability to put weight on the ankle
  • Numbness or tingling in the foot or toes

When Is Surgery Required?

Not all broken ankles require surgery. However, surgery may be necessary in the following cases:

  • Severe displacement
  • Open fracture
  • Multiple fractures
  • Talus fracture
  • Compromised blood flow

If you suspect you have a broken ankle, see a doctor immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment. Early intervention can help ensure a full recovery and minimize the risk of complications.

SportsMed Physical Therapy West Orange Clinical Director Michael Weidman, PT, DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy), specializes in orthopedic rehabilitation and joint replacement therapy and is certified in advanced orthopedic manual interventions. Michael recommends seeing a doctor immediately to prevent interrupted blood flow to the foot, which could compromise the limb.

Factors Influencing Broken Ankle Recovery Time

Several factors can significantly impact how long it takes for your broken ankle to heal completely. Here’s a breakdown of the key influences:

1. Severity of the Fracture

As previously mentioned, the seriousness of the break plays a significant role in recovery time. Here are some common fracture types and their impact:

  • Fibular fracture: A break in the fibula (calf bone) is often less severe and heals more quickly (6-8 weeks) compared to other types.
  • Compound fracture: When the broken bone protrudes through the skin, it’s called a compound fracture. This is a more serious injury with a higher risk of infection, leading to a longer recovery (potentially several months).
  • Trimalleolar fracture: This involves a break in all three bones forming the ankle joint (tibia, fibula, and talus). Complex fractures often require surgery and have a longer recovery time (3-6 months or more).

2. Type of Treatment

The treatment method chosen by your doctor will also influence recovery. Here are some common approaches:

  • Casting: For stable fractures, your doctor will use a cast to immobilize the ankle for 6-8 weeks, allowing the bones to heal properly.
  • Walking boot: For less severe fractures or after removing the cast, your doctor will use a walking boot to provide support while allowing some limited movement. Recovery time can still be 6-8 weeks.
  • Surgery: In cases with severe displacement, open fractures, or compromised blood flow, surgery might be necessary.  There are different surgical procedures, such as Open Reduction Internal Fixation (ORIF), involving plates and screws to hold the bones in place. Surgery often leads to a longer recovery period (3-6 months or more), with physical therapy playing a crucial role.
  • Ankle replacement: In rare cases with severe damage, your doctor will consider ankle replacement surgery. Recovery from this procedure can be extensive (up to a year).

Regardless of the treatment method, physical therapy is important for recovery, regaining function, and restoring range of motion.

3. Age and Overall Health

Younger individuals with healthy bones typically heal faster than older adults or those with pre-existing conditions like osteoporosis. Conditions like diabetes can also hinder healing and extend recovery time. 

4. Adherence to Rehabilitation Protocols

Following your doctor’s recommended rehabilitation plan and physical therapist’s program is crucial for optimal recovery. Physical therapy exercises can help regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion in the ankle joint. 

Skipping or not diligently performing these exercises can significantly slow down your progress.

The Recovery Process

The road to recovery after a broken ankle involves a series of steps to heal the bones, regain strength, and restore mobility in the joint. Here’s a breakdown of the typical recovery process:

Immediate Post-Injury Care

Immediately after the injury, the R.I.C.E. protocol is crucial — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This helps minimize swelling and pain while promoting healing.

Your doctor will prescribe pain medication to manage discomfort during the initial stages.

Progression from Immobilization to Bearing Weight

Whether you’re in a cast or walking boot (depending on the break’s severity), think of this time as a strategic pause. It allows your bones to heal properly for 6-8 weeks with a cast, potentially less with a boot.

Your doctor will tell you when to put weight back on your ankle. Initially, you might be non-weight bearing (NWB), using crutches for temporary assistance.

Then, you’ll gradually progress to weight-bearing as tolerated (WBAT) with support. This is all part of the game plan for a full recovery.

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Exercises

Your physical therapist will be your coach, designing a personalized rehab program to strengthen and rehabilitate your ankle so it can return to its full range of motion. These exercises are key to reclaiming your peak performance and avoiding stiffness that could sideline you.

The program will depend on your doctor’s plan and whether you had surgery. In the early stages, you might use a walking boot for support and perform some non-weight-bearing drills. These exercises will build strength without putting pressure on your ankle.

Gradually, you’ll progress to exercises that mimic the demands of your sport or daily life, letting you build confidence in movement again.

Restoration of Range of Motion

A physical therapist might use manual therapy techniques to improve joint mobility and flexibility. They may use straps or bands to assist with gentle stretching exercises to increase your range of motion.

As your strength improves, exercises will progress to actively moving your ankle joint with some assistance from the therapist.

Swelling Control

Simple exercises like repeatedly flexing and pointing your toes can help reduce swelling. A physical therapist can use manual drainage techniques to promote fluid movement and reduce swelling.

Properly applied compression wraps will also help manage swelling and provide support to the ankle. 

Weight Acceptance

Exercises will gradually progress to weight-bearing activities, starting with standing and shifting weight from one foot to another. You’ll also start strengthening exercises for the muscles around the ankle joint while seated.

Pain Management

Throughout recovery, your therapist will use ice therapy to manage pain and inflammation. In some cases, they’ll use electrical stimulation to help reduce pain and improve muscle function.

Tips for Speeding Up Broken Ankle Recovery

While you can’t necessarily rush the healing process of the broken bone itself, there are ways to speed up your recovery and get back on your feet faster. Here are some key tips:

Diet and Nutrition for Bone Health

Don’t let your diet slow down your recovery. Ensure you get enough calcium, vitamin D, and other bone-building nutrients to speed up your healing. Dairy products, leafy greens, and fish are all essentials during recovery.

Talk to your doctor about calcium and vitamin D supplements. They can help ensure your body has the building blocks it needs to get you back on your feet stronger than ever.

Home Exercises and Self-Care Tips

Personal therapy sessions only take up a small chunk of your training. The real gains happen with your Home Exercise Program (HEP), prescribed by your physical therapist. Sticking to this program religiously throughout the day builds strength and gets your ankle back in form.

Physical Therapist Michael Weidman says,  “A patient seeing their physical therapist for 3 hours a week still leaves 165 hours in the week for the patient to work on their own! So, patients need to also put in the work at home during this time.”

He also recommends: “Ice your ankle regularly to minimize pain and inflammation so you can focus on getting better faster. Use an ACE bandage or compression socks (as directed by your doctor) to support your ankle and keep swelling down. Also, remember to elevate your ankle whenever you can.”

Work With a Physical Therapist

Coming to physical therapy for the first time can be intimidating. But SportsMed’s Doctors of Physical Therapy are ready to guide you through your intake and first session, answer all your questions, and start your recovery journey.

Physical Therapists are specifically trained as movement and body specialists, so you can be confident that they’ll know exactly what to do to make you better.

As your ankle heals and strengthens, your physical therapist will gradually progress your exercise program to challenge you and improve your range of motion and strength.

This often involves changes to the program weekly or bi-weekly based on your progress and doctor’s recommendations on weight-bearing.

Follow-up Care and Regular Check-Ups

Make sure to complete all of those follow-up visits with your physical therapist! The check-ins are crucial for monitoring your ankle’s progress and ensuring you’re healing properly. This avoids any surprise setbacks that might slow your healing.

Let SportsMed Physical Therapy Help You With Broken Ankle Recovery

Recovery from a broken ankle depends on the severity of the break and if you’re on the right recovery path. By following the tips above and listening closely to your doctor and physical therapist, you’ll be back on your feet in no time!

At SportsMed Physical Therapy, our team of experienced physical therapists will help you achieve a full recovery. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and take the first step towards returning to the activities you love!