Clinical Review

Foot and Ankle Injuries in Soccer

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Ankle sprains cover a broad spectrum of injuries; therefore, a grading system was devised to aid in guiding treatment. Grade I (mild) sprains are those with minimal swelling and tenderness but have the ligaments still intact. Grade II (moderate) sprains occur when there are partial ligament tears associated with moderate pain, swelling, and tenderness. Finally, Grade III (severe) sprains are complete ligament tears with marked swelling, hemorrhage, tenderness, loss of function, and abnormal joint motion and instability.23, 24

Initial treatment for all ankle sprains is nonoperative and involves the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) protocol with the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) during the acute phase (first 4-5 days) with a short period (no >2 weeks) of immobilization.27 Most authors agree that early mobilization followed by phased rehabilitation is warranted to minimize time away from sports.28-31 Prolonged immobilization (>2 weeks) has detrimental effects and may lead to a longer return to play.28-31 The rehabilitation protocol is divided into stages: (1) pain and edema control, (2) range of motion (ROM) and strengthening exercises, (3) soccer specific functional training, and (4) prophylactic intervention with balance and proprioception exercises. Surgical intervention is rarely indicated for acute ankle sprains. There are exceptions, however, such as when ankle sprains are associated with other injuries that require acute intervention (eg, fracture, osteochondral lesion). Surgery is indicated in the setting of chronic, recurrent mechanical instability. Anatomical repairs (modified Brostrom) seem to produce better outcomes than non-anatomical reconstructions (eg, Chrisman-Snook). Surgical outcomes are good, and most athletes are able to return to their pre-injury level of function.32

In athletes, prevention of recurrent sprains is key. Braces may help prevent ankle sprains and bracing has been shown to be superior to taping, as tape loses its restrictive properties within 20 to 30 minutes of initiating activity.33,34 Application of an orthosis (lace-up ankle orthosis) has been shown to reduce the incidence of ankle re-injury in soccer players with previous ankle sprains. Several studies have found minimal, if any, effect of orthoses on athletic performance.20,35,36 Low-profile braces for soccer have been developed which allow for minimal disruption of the player’s boot and space proximally to insert the shin guard. Another essential component of prevention is prophylactic intervention with balance and proprioceptive exercises. A study looking at first division men’s league football (soccer) players in Iran showed a significant decrease in re-injury rates with proprioceptive training.37 In 2003, FIFA introduced a comprehensive warm-up program (FIFA 11+), which has since been shown in several studies to decrease the risk of injury in amateur soccer players.38-40


Soccer places an unusually high demand on both the medial foot and ankle structures when compared with other sports. For instance, striking the ball requires the player to abduct and externally rotate the foot, which preloads medial structures.9 Hintermann18 looked at 54 cases of medial ankle instability and found that injury commonly occurred during landing on an uneven surface, which applies to soccer players when landing after heading the ball or jumping over a tackle. Pronation with eversion and extreme rotational injuries are well known to cause deltoid ligament injury. However, complete rupture of the deltoid ligament is rare and is more often associated with ankle fractures.41 Due to its close proximity and similarly shared function in medial plantar arch stabilization with the tibiospring and spring ligaments, posterior tibialis tendon dysfunction is also frequently seen in medial ankle instability.17 After an acute injury, patients can present with a medial ankle hematoma and pain along the deltoid ligament. Although chronic insufficiency is diagnosed based on the feeling of “giving way,” pain in the medial gutter of the ankle and a valgus and pronation deformity of the foot can be corrected by activating the peroneus tertius muscle. Arthroscopy is the most specific way to confirm clinically suspected instability of the medial ankle; however, MRI can demonstrate loss of organized medial fibers (Figures 3A, 3B).18 Primary surgical repair of deltoid ligament tears yield good to excellent results and should be considered in the soccer player to prevent problems associated with chronic non-repaired tears such as instability, osteoarthritis, and impingement syndromes.18 After surgical repair, players will undergo extensive physical therapy that progresses to sport-specific exercises with the ultimate goal of returning to competitive play around 4-6 months post-operatively.

Preoperative coronal T2 magnetic resonance imaging showing a chronic deltoid tear


High ankle sprains are much less common than low ankle sprains; however, when they do occur they portend a lengthier rehabilitation and a poorer prognosis, especially if undiagnosed. Lubberts and colleagues42 studied the epidemiology of isolated syndesmotic injuries in professional football players. They pooled data from 15 consecutive seasons of European professional football between 2001 and 2016. They examined a total of 3677 players from 61 teams across 17 countries. There were 1320 ankle ligament injuries registered during 15 seasons, of which 94 (7%) were isolated syndesmotic injuries. The incidence of these injuries increased annually between 2001 and 2016. Injuries were 74% contact-related, and isolated syndesmotic injuries were followed by a mean of a 39-day absence.42 Moreover, football players may have an increased risk of syndesmotic sprains due to foot planting and cutting action.41

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