As we age, we begin to get accustomed to new aches and pains. We also start to notice new noises as we use the stairs, pick up groceries, or exercise. When joints pop, we just walk it off and don't think about it.
When is an Ankle Pop OK?
Sometimes walking around or stretching causes a pop noise. But if you don't experience pain or swelling, it can be normal. Even air escaping a joint or scar tissue from previous injuries can cause an occasional soft pop in the ankle. But the pop noises can also mean something more serious.
Most foot and ankle injuries tend affect tendons, ligaments, or bones. Tendons are the connective tissue that attach the muscle to bone. They can get weaker and stiffer as we get older. Think about those old, dry, splitting rubber bands in the back of your desk. Tendons can be similar, and this aging can increase your risk of injuries.
The Worst Offender: Achilles Tendon Injuries
You're enjoying your activity, until you feel the worst pain in your life and fall to the ground. You can hear an audible pop noise in your ankle as the tendon ruptures.
Orthopedic surgeon Joseph Park, MD, says patients describe this tendon injury as feeling like they were shot. But luckily, you weren't. You just tore or ruptured your Achilles tendon. This tendon connects your calf muscle to your heel bone. It's the strongest tendon in the body.
After the initial shock, you may have difficulty putting weight on your foot. But you can get up and limp away. You'll continue to experience pain and swelling. You may not be able to move your foot sideways or down, the motion similar to driving and using the pedals. Even complete Achilles tendon tears can recover without surgery using a brace or restricting your activities while it heals.
However, some Achilles ruptures will require surgery, especially in sports or a physically demanding job. There is a higher risk of rupturing the tendon again in patients, so it's best to discuss your options with an orthopedic surgeon.
Another Possible Rupture
The plantar fascia runs from your toes to the heel under your foot. Plantar fasciitis, the inflammation or degeneration of this tendon, is more common than a complete rupture. Sometimes a full rupture can be less painful than a partial tear. You'll feel pain immediately after a pop in the arch of your foot, as well as swelling and bruising.
It may also be difficult to bear all your weight on that foot. Treatment may involve a walking boot along with ice and elevation while recovering. Since the plantar fascia helps support the foot and maintain the arch, injury to this area can lead to flattening.
Tendon Injury Treatment
With most of these injuries, you should be able to recover at home with over-the-counter medications and rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). The goal is to let the tendon or plantar fascia heal and get the inflammation down. If you continue to experience pain or the swelling gets worse, talk with your provider.
Pain Above The Heel
Achilles tendinopathy is inflammation or tears in the Achilles tendon usually caused by overuse and later cause an injury.
Ankle Sprains and Breaks
You could hear a pop when you break or sprain your foot or ankle. There are 26 bones in the foot, which means many little opportunities to sustain injuries, making walking difficult.
Ligaments connect and stabilize bones. The most common injured ligament is the anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL) and is typically damaged with an ankle sprain. The most common broken bone in the ankle is the fibula, the smaller bone on the outside of the ankle.
The initial treatment: Decreasing motion and weight on it so it can heal. That might mean:
- Immobilizing your foot and ankle with a splint or cast
- Wearing a walking boot
- Using crutches or a knee scooter
If the break is serious enough, you may need surgery. Also, let your provider know if the pain gets worse despite rest or elevation.
Sprains occur when you overstretch or tear a ligament, like when you twist or roll your ankle. This can happen to anyone at any age during any activity. Doctors use X-rays to rule out a broken bone. Similar to tendon injuries, RICE and anti-inflammatories can help heal a sprain. It's extremely rare to need surgery for this injury. If you continue to have ankle sprains despite other treatments, surgery may be required to re-establish ankle stability.
If you continue to have repeat ankle trauma, you'll increase your chances of osteoarthritis in the joint. If severe enough, you could eventually become a candidate for an ankle replacement.
How to Keep Your Ankles & Feet Healthy
Keep your tendons healthy with these tips:
- Maintain flexibility by stretching and warming up before activities.
- Obtain a healthy body weight and keep active.
- Get plenty of Vitamin D. Park suggests 2,000 IU (international units) per day for most patients.
- Keep your bones healthy and strong with weight-bearing exercises. Physical therapy or a personal trainer can help you exercise in a safe environment as certain injuries, even walking, can cause more damage to the bone or joint.
- The right shoe can make a difference — visit a local running shop or shoe store for recommendations.
If you continue to have bone injuries, your provider may order a bone density scan.