When you’re dealing with ankle pain, exercise and everyday activities can feel challenging. Pain in this part of the body can have several causes, but it’s most common in athletes and people who perform the same activities regularly — if you’re a runner, for example, you may experience discomfort in the ankle after a long training cycle. As with many foot and ankle problems, early identification and treatment can help.

A man holding his foot due to front of ankle pain

What Is Ankle Impingement?

Ankle impingement is a disorder of the ankle that happens when an adjacent structure, such as a bone spur, infringes on the ankle joint. This structure prevents your ankle from functioning normally. An impingement can happen on the front or back of the ankle, but it’s most common on the front side. This issue is called an anterior ankle impingement.

Symptoms of Ankle Impingement

Impingement can cause a range of uncomfortable symptoms, including swelling, a stiff or unstable ankle or aching that gets worse when you’re active. Over time, the discomfort can escalate to chronic ankle pain. As ankle impingement affects your ankle joint, you may notice a reduction in your foot’s range of motion. In particular, ankle impingement makes it difficult or painful to bend your toes toward your shin. This movement is called dorsiflexion; it’s crucial for dancers, runners, and other athletes.

How can you tell the difference between pain caused by ankle impingement and other disorders and lesions? Try pressing against the front of your ankle. If you have an impingement, you’ll probably feel discomfort. Lesions in the cartilage around the joint often cause pain deep inside your ankle. 

What Causes Pain on the Front of the Ankle?

Marathon running race, people feet on city roadIn many cases, pain in the front of the ankle happens when you perform a repetitive motion over a prolonged period of time. It’s a common problem for athletes who perform the same maneuvers on a regular basis — dancers, gymnasts, football players, runners, and soccer players often experience anterior ankle impingement. 

Repeated strain and traumatic or repetitive compression on the joint can damage the ankle bone or create calcium deposits. Over time, this leads to bone spurs, which are small lumps of bone. The spur causes painful friction and prevents your ankle from moving through the full range of motion. Sometimes an anterior ankle impingement can affect the soft tissue around your joint. The disorder appears so frequently among athletes that it’s earned the nickname “footballer’s ankle.”

Direct impact can also cause anterior ankle impingement. A strong hit to the ankle can damage the joint or the tendon and create bone spurs. You might also experience this problem after ankle injuries or a previous ankle sprain.

Although anterior ankle impingement is most common among adults, it can also occur in children. Pediatric pain usually happens when the bones fit together improperly. This misalignment harms the joint over time, causing pain and limited motion. 

When to See a Doctor for Anterior Ankle Impingement

Front of ankle pain tends to get worse without treatment, so it’s a good idea to see a doctor as soon as you notice a problem. With early intervention, you may be able to correct the issue without surgery. Your doctor can also help you find ways to prevent impingement down the road. This is especially important if you’ve already tried an at-home treatment regimen of rest and icing to tackle swelling.

For many people, ankle pain often appears during exercise. If you start to notice pain at the front of your ankle when walking or doing other everyday activities, it’s important to schedule an appointment with a foot and ankle specialist. Proper treatment can help relieve pain, whether you’re walking around the block or going for a run.

If your child is complaining of pain on the front of the ankle, don’t hesitate to schedule an exam. Since pediatric ankle impingements often arise from incorrect alignment, corrective action is essential for healthy growth and development.

Treatment Options for Front of Ankle Pain

When you see a podiatrist in Santa Barbara, CA, for front of ankle pain, the doctor will typically start with a physical examination. This may be followed by an X-ray and/or a CT scan. Imaging is helpful in diagnosing bony impingements. For soft-tissue impingement, your doctor may use an ultrasound. With a clear picture of the ankle joint, it’s easier to choose the most effective course of action to correct the anterior ankle impingement.

Podiatrist examining his patient's foot and ankle - foot care in Santa Barbara CaliforniaMany practitioners start with a conservative, non-surgical approach to treatment, which might include rest or over-the-counter painkillers. Sometimes, doctors will recommend a cortisone or steroid shot to help reduce swelling and pain. If your ankle pain is related to sprains, you may need to wear a brace during everyday activities and athletic pursuits. For problems with foot or ankle alignment, an orthotic insert might help correct the issue and resolve the pain.

Depending on the severity of the anterior ankle impingement, your doctor might suggest a round of physical therapy. The therapist will typically create a treatment plan that includes balance and proprioception exercises to break down scar tissue, rehabilitate the ankle joint, and strengthen the surrounding muscles for a more stable ankle.

If these treatments don’t work, your doctor may recommend foot and ankle surgery. During the procedure, the surgeon will usually remove, or debride, the problematic soft tissue or bone spur. If you’re a good candidate, your doctor may be able to use arthroscopy, which is a minimally invasive method that speeds the healing process and helps you get back to normal activities quickly. After surgery, you might need physical therapy or additional shoe or movement modifications to prevent persistent anterior impingement syndrome.

Schedule Treatment for Front of Ankle Pain in Santa Barbara, CA

Pain in the front of your ankle joint can range from a dull ache to a sharp, shooting sensation. If your discomfort is affecting your ability to walk, participate in sports or enjoy your everyday life, get in touch with us at Align Foot and Ankle Center in Santa Barbara, CA. Our experienced team of podiatrists and foot and ankle surgeons can diagnose the problem, determine the best treatment plan, and get you back to normal quickly. Call us at 805-965-1515 to schedule an appointment today.