Treatment of acute lateral ankle ligament rupture in the athlete: Conservative versus surgical treatment

Scott A. Lynch, Per A.F.H. Renström

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

170 Scopus citations


Acute lateral ankle ligament sprains are common in young athletes (15 to 35 years of age). Diagnostic and treatment protocols vary. Therapies range from cast immobilisation or acute surgical repair to functional rehabilitation. The lateral ligament complex includes 3 capsular ligaments: the anterior tibiofibular (ATFL), calcaneofibular (CFL) and posterior talofibular (PTFL) ligaments. Injuries typically occur during plantar flexion and inversion; the ATFL is most commonly torn. The CFL and the PTFL can also be injured and, after severe inversion, subtalar joint ligaments are also affected. Commonly, an athlete with a lateral ankle ligament sprain reports having 'rolled over' the outside of their ankle. The entire ankle and foot must be examined to ensure there are no other injuries. Clinical stability tests for ligamentous disruption include the anterior drawer test of ATFL function and inversion tilt test of both ATFL and CFL function. Radiographs may rule out treatable fractures in severe injuries or when pain or tenderness are not associated with lateral ligaments. Stress radiographs do not affect treatment. Ankle sprains are classified from grades I to III (mild, moderate or severe), Grade I and II injuries recover quickly with nonoperative management. A nonoperative 'functional treatment' programme includes immediate use of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation), a short period of immobilisation and protection with a tape or bandage, and early range of motion, weight-bearing and neuromuscular training exercises. Proprioceptive training on a tilt board after 3 to 4 weeks helps improve balance and neuromuscular control of the ankle. Treatment for grade III injuries is more controversial. A comprehensive literature evaluation and meta-analysis showed that early functional treatment provided the fastest recovery of ankle mobility and earliest return to work and physical activity without affecting late mechanical stability. Functional treatment was complication-free, whereas surgery had serious, though infrequent, complications. Functional treatment produced no more sequelae than casting with or without surgical repair. Secondary surgical repair, even years after an injury, has results comparable to those of primary repair, so even competitive athletes can receive initial conservative treatment. Sequelae of lateral ligament injuries are common. After conservative or surgical treatment, 10 to 30% of patients have chronic symptoms, including persistent synovitis or tendinitis, ankle stiffness, swelling, pain, muscle weakness and 'giving-way'. Well-designed physical therapy programmes usually reduce instability. For individuals with chronic instability refractory to conservative measures, surgery may be needed. Subtalar instability should be carefully evaluated when considering surgery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-71
Number of pages11
JournalSports Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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