Does this sound familiar?
“I sprained my ankle and have done it many times in the past. I’m just going to let it heal on its own like I always do”.
This is a regular occurrence with ankle sprains but you could really substitute any injury here and the outcome would be the same. Slap a brace on it and you’ll be good to go in a few weeks right? The problem is that you are often on the road to chronic injuries when you leave the injury to heal this way. We’ll use an ankle sprain as an example – which is really is a soft tissue injury. It will heal if left alone to heal. The question is will it heal correctly?
How the body works.
If you close your eyes you can tell what position your knee, thumb or ankle are in. This is called Positional Proprioception. Our brain relies on this to know the position our joints are in, fire the right muscles to maintain balance, move to the right position, and protect our joints from going into dangerous positions, thus avoiding injury. Our brain receives information from the tension around the joints and knows how bent/straight/rotated etc. the joint is. It, therefore, knows if your ankle is going over and can instantly fire the right muscles to protect us from injury.
What happens with an injury?
Once you have injured your tissues around a joint they are not efficient at sending signals to your brain. Your brain can no longer detect when abnormal forces are being applied to joints, resulting in a delayed signal to your brain and a delay in muscle recruitment to move the joint where it should go. The result is that you are predisposed to re-injury. This is why you get repeated ankle sprains after you sprain your ankle just once.
You are also susceptible to injuries in other locations because your body will be compensating for the initial injury. For example, people with an ankle sprain often limp (whether they are aware of it or not) and other muscles have to compensate creating an imbalance of tension in these areas.
What can you do about this?
To stop the cycle, you need to retrain the Proprioceptive system after an injury. This is where the treatment process comes in. We can break down scar tissue at the injury site (which impedes normal movement), release tension in the surrounding muscles (which contribute to future injuries), control inflammation (which impedes proper proprioception and causes pain), and give you specific balance and strengthening exercises to target your weaknesses and retrain your proprioception.
The end result is that you can often get away from using bulky braces and have a good enough system to rely on it alone to avoid re-injury. The goal is not just to get through this injury but to rehabilitate it, avoid re-injury and allow you to return to your active lifestyle!