This article is part of a series discussing the biomechanical connections between the feet, ankles, knees and hips, and how they each impact knee health.
The ankle joint – a mighty mover
The ankle joint transmits the weight of the body through to the feet and withstands thousands of steps each day. It also sends constant neurological feedback to the brain so that you can stand upright. This makes it an important joint along the kinetic chain of the leg.
It’s made up of three bones: the two shin bones, the tibia and fibula; and the talus bone, a large foot bone that sits above the heel bone. Its main job is to allow the up (dorsiflexion) and down (plantar flexion) movement of the foot. See figures 1 and 2.
Ankle dorsiflexion & the knee
Problems at the ankle joint can have a major impact on how you walk and negatively influence other joints further along the kinetic chain, including the ankle’s next door neighbor the knee. For example, limitation in dorsiflexion can create difficulties in knee bending, causing the knee to hyper-extend (over-extend in the back of the knee). It can also cause the foot to pronate, leading the knee to collapse inward as you walk or run. More on foot pronation.
There are many reasons why your ankles might have a limited ability to dorsiflex. Often it’s as simple as short soft tissues at the ankle and shin (possibly due to scar tissue from an old injury), and regular ankle and calf stretching will help.
However, movment limitations can also be caused by arthritis, the shape of your bones, or damage to the joint cartilage. If you are currently suffering from ankle pain, your best course of action is to visit a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and treatment.
Are your ankles stiff?
There’s a simple test you can perform to see if your ankles are overly limited in dorsiflexion. It’s called the knee to wall test – see figure 3. It can also be used as an exercise to increase ankle mobility.
- Stand with the big toe of the front leg about 4 inches from a wall.
- Place your hands on the wall for balance, then bend the front and back knee and see if your front knee can touch the wall.
- Keep the front knee tacking over the center of the front foot as you bend.
- Keep the front foot heel on the floor.
- Now try on the other side. Is it the same?
- If your knee is unable to touch the wall from this distance you may have stiff ankles.
- If you have long shins or you’re naturally more flexible and can touch the wall easily, move the front foot further away from the wall and try the test again.
- If there is a difference between the two ankles you may have to work asymmetrically when stretching them by spending more time on your stiff side. Don’t be over aggressive with this! Stretch regularly and be patient. Change will come in time.
Check out part 2 of this article to find out how yoga can help.
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