Physical therapy, or PT, is a medical specialty that deals with improving a patient’s mobility and relieving pain following an injury, or sometimes an illness. Foot and ankle physical therapy most often focuses on the various joints of the foot and ankle, which may be impaired in their movements by such events as foot injuries or ankle sprains, or by congenital foot or ankle conditions such as clubfoot.
Sports-related injuries are perhaps the most common reason for doctors to recommend physical therapy. Some sports and activities—such as football, basketball, and ballet dancing—can be dangerous to your feet and ankles because they put unusual stress on the joints due to sudden stops and turns while running, or due to unnatural weight bearing. Accordingly, many physical therapists specialize in sports medicine.
Your doctor will be the one to tell you if physical therapy for your foot or ankle would benefit you, or if it is necessary for your recovery from one of the above-mentioned conditions. If this is the case, your doctor will prescribe physical therapy and refer you to a licensed physical therapist.
What Is Involved in Physical Therapy for Feet and Ankles?
The regimen your physical therapist will subject you to depends mostly on the nature of the problem, and also to some degree on your doctor’s recommendations. Stretching exercises may be necessary to loosen joint capsules, tendons, or ligaments that have been injured and become “frozen” by a condition such as adhesive capsulitis, for example.
Massage is frequently an important component of foot or ankle physical therapy, as is the application of heat or cold to the affected area—indeed, many PT sessions begin with a ten-minute application of heat to the foot or ankle, and end with the application of a cold pack for approximately the same length of time. If the PT center where your therapy is being conducted is equipped with a pool or Jacuzzi, these may also play a role in your therapy.
Sometimes foot or ankle physical therapy involves the use of ultrasound techniques such as EPAT. This painless procedure involves the use of ultrasound waves directed at the injured or affected area. This serves to break up scar tissue and replace it with healthy tissue in order to restore mobility to stiffened joints.
Qualifications of a Physical Therapist
While physical therapists are not doctors, they are licensed and well-educated medical professionals. Generally speaking, a physical therapist must earn at least a BS (Bachelor of Sciences) degree, although many have a Master’s degree, and most programs offer a path for a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.
The curricula for these programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Following graduation from such a program, a candidate must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination in order to become a licensed physical therapist.
Some Typical Physical Therapy Exercises for Feet and Ankles
Below are some examples of exercises frequently recommended for people who have suffered from certain foot or ankle injuries, or who suffer from a condition that can be helped by foot or ankle physical therapy.
These examples are provided here for illustrative purposes only. Do not attempt to use this article as a substitute for a consultation with a doctor if you are suffering from undiagnosed foot or ankle pain. Your doctor is the only person qualified to tell you what needs to be done to treat your pain.
- Physical Therapy Exercises for an Ankle Sprain
If you have sprained your ankle, your physical therapist may recommend certain exercises to strengthen the ankle once it has healed enough to bear weight and you have regained sufficient range of motion.
The simplest of these exercises requires you to place your foot against a heavy object such as a couch or doorway, with the object against the inside of your foot (the big-toe side). You will then attempt to turn your foot toward the object, which will offer resistance. Hold this position for a ten-count and repeat ten times, then switch positions and press in the opposite direction with the other side of your foot.
Other physical therapy exercises for an ankle sprain involve exercising the same muscles by using an elastic resistance band, which may be provided from the therapist (if not, you can easily get one from a sporting goods store). Simpler exercises can also be used to address range of motion issues—your therapist may ask you to simply trace the alphabet with your toe, or sit in a chair with your feet pressed to the floor, moving your knees from side to side without moving your feet.
- Physical Therapy Treatment for Clubfoot
Clubfoot is a congenital condition (i.e., one is born with it) in which the bones of the foot become malformed, causing the foot to turn inward and upward (if you are having difficulty picturing this, see our Clubfoot article for a more detailed explanation with pictures). Treatment for this condition begins in infancy, and sometimes involves physical therapy for the foot as well as surgery.
Using a method known as the French Physical Therapy Technique, a therapist manipulates the foot in order to stretch and loosen the ligaments and tendons that are holding the bones in their deformed positions. The foot is then placed in a cast to hold the foot in its corrected position. This procedure is repeated every week or two until surgery becomes necessary.
Talking to Your Doctor
Here are some questions to ask your doctor about physical therapy for your foot or ankle:
- Do you think physical therapy would help me regain my full range of motion?
- Would PT help with the pain I am experiencing?
- How often will I need to make appointment to see the therapist, and for how long?