What Is Lateral Ankle Pain?

Lateral ankle pain is any pain or discomfort that affects the outside of the ankle. There are many types of lateral ankle pain with a variety of causes and treatment options. If you’re experiencing this type of pain, it’s best to speak with a physician as soon as possible. Some of the underlying causes of lateral ankle pain may worsen over time, making your condition more difficult to treat if you do not address it early.

Acute Lateral Ankle Pain vs. Chronic Lateral Ankle Pain

Acute lateral ankle pain occurs suddenly. You will typically experience this type of pain at the time of injury. Sharp and uncomfortable, acute lateral ankle pain is something you should always address by diagnosing your injury and properly treating it. The RICE treatment method of rest, ice, compression, and elevation is always a good place to start right after an ankle injury.

Chronic ankle pain develops more slowly over time. You may develop chronic ankle pain after an injury, especially if your ankle does not heal properly. You may also experience chronic ankle pain if you put too much pressure on your ankle over time or develop a condition like arthritis.

Symptoms of a Lateral Ankle Injury

These symptoms may indicate that you have a lateral ankle injury:

  • Difficulty walking
  • Instability and a feeling that your ankle might give way
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Stiffness and limited range of motion

The pain itself is the most obvious symptom of lateral ankle problems. Lateral ankle pain can be a sudden, sharp sensation in the ankle. Or it can present as a constant, persistent ache.

Causes of Lateral Ankle Pain

Acute lateral ankle pain is often caused by:

  • Sprains. The most common type of ankle injury, a sprain, occurs when the foot rolls out and the ligaments and tendons of the ankle tear. 
  • Fractures. An ankle fracture is a broken bone. That may impact one or more of the bones in the ankle joint. Ligament damage may occur with a fracture as well.
  • Strains. An ankle strain is like a sprain but less severe. Ankle strain occurs when a fall, trip, or other movement stretches the muscles and tendons in the ankle too far.

Chronic ankle pain is typically the result of a poorly healed ankle injury. You may experience acute ankle pain at the time of one of the injuries listed above, but end up dealing with chronic ankle pain due to:

  • Damaged nerves from the injury, such as those that are torn, pinched, or stretched.
  • Inflammation of the joint lining.
  • Scar tissue from the injury, which puts pressure on the ligaments.
  • Inflamed tendons.
  • Ankle impingement, which pinches the soft tissues between the bones.
  • Peroneal tendon dislocation where the tendon rubs against the bone.
  • Arthritis, potentially caused by a prior injury or infection.

Chronic ankle pain may also result from a severe flatfoot deformity. Flatfoot deformities can develop throughout adulthood, gradually worsening over time. Lateral ankle pain is an early symptom of adult acquired flatfoot deformity (AAFD). As this condition progresses, it can develop into a complete arch collapse and result in arthritis of the ankle and hindfoot.

Diagnosing Lateral Ankle Pain

You should seek medical help for lateral ankle pain if:

  • The sensation is so intense that you have trouble walking, participating in sports, or performing other regular activities. 
  • You’re experiencing swelling or tenderness.
  • You feel unstable when you’re walking, as though your ankle might give way.
  • You’re suffering from repeated ankle strains or sprains.

Once you’ve sprained your ankle once, you’re more likely to do it again because the tendons have weakened. As many as 40% of ankle sprains develop into chronic symptoms. If you sprain your ankle repeatedly, it’s best to talk to a specialist.

Your physician will begin by investigating the history of your condition. You will need to mention all previous ankle injuries that you’ve sustained. Your physician will also ask how you’ve treated these injuries and how you were able to recover. It’s helpful for your doctor to know how long you’ve been experiencing lateral ankle pain and when this pain is the worst. Are there times when the pain goes away or times when it’s intense? The more you can tell your doctor, the more quickly you may reach a diagnosis.

Since lateral ankle pain can have many different causes, your doctor may need to perform several diagnostic tests. These tests can include an X-ray, MRI, bone scan, or CT scan. In some cases, your doctor may want imaging of both your ankles so they can compare your non-injured ankle with the one that’s experiencing pain.

Treatments for Lateral Ankle Pain

The proper treatment plan for your ankle pain will depend heavily upon the ultimate diagnosis. For lateral ankle pain caused by a minor injury, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to help with the pain and swelling while your ankle heals. Physical therapy can help you regain a full range of motion and strengthen your ankle after an injury.

If your ankle needs to be immobilized while it heals, your doctor may provide an ankle brace, wrap, stirrup, cast, or another form of support. Immobilization is especially crucial in the case of a fracture.

Chronic ankle pain often requires a more aggressive treatment plan, which may include steroid injection therapy. In some cases, chronic lateral ankle pain may require surgical treatment. Ankle surgery can help repair or reconstruct ligaments, transfer tendons, or remove loose bone fragments after an injury. A surgeon can also clean the joint or joint surface when needed to facilitate more comfortable and thorough healing.

Physical therapy frequently follows ankle surgery. It’s important to balance rest with therapeutic movements as your ankle heals so that you can restore it to its previous state as much as possible. It can take up to 10 weeks for full rehabilitation from ankle surgery.

If you’re dealing with lateral ankle pain, our physicians can help. Contact Dr. Schoene for reliable podiatric care. At Gurnee Podiatry & Sports Medicine, you can get the diagnosis and treatment plan that you need to recover.