Rehabilitation after ankle fracture can begin soon after the fracture has been treated by the use of different types of immobilisation which allow early commencement of weight-bearing or exercise. Alternatively, rehabilitation may start following the period of immobilisation, with physical or manual therapies.

To compare the effectiveness of rehabilitation interventions following ankle fracture in adults.

We searched two Specialised Registers of The Cochrane Collaboration, electronic databases (including MEDLINE, EMBASE and CINAHL), reference lists of included studies and relevant systematic reviews, and clinical trials registers to September 2007.

Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials with adults undergoing any interventions for rehabilitation after ankle fracture were considered. The primary outcome was activity limitation. Secondary outcomes included impairments and adverse events.

Two reviewers independently screened search results, assessed methodological quality, and extracted data. Relative risk and 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) were calculated for dichotomous variables, and weighted or standardised mean difference and 95% CI were calculated for continuous variables. A meta-analysis was performed where appropriate.

Thirty-one studies were included. Clinical and statistical heterogeneity prevented meta-analyses in most instances. After surgical fixation, commencing exercise in a removable brace or splint significantly improved activity limitation, pain and ankle range of motion, but also led to a higher rate of adverse events. Early commencement of weight-bearing during the immobilisation period improved ankle range of motion after surgical fixation. Where it was possible to avoid ankle range of motion after surgical fixation, the use of no immobilisation compared to cast immobilisation also improved ankle range of motion. After the immobilisation period, manual therapy was beneficial in increasing ankle range of motion. There was no evidence of effect for electrotherapy, hypnosis, or stretching.

There is limited evidence supporting the use of a removable type of immobilisation and exercise during the immobilisation period, early commencement of weight-bearing during the immobilisation period, and no immobilisation after surgical fixation of ankle fracture. There is also limited evidence for manual therapy after the immobilisation period. Because of the potential increased risk, the patient's ability to comply with the use of a removable type of immobilisation and exercise is essential. More clinical trials that are well-designed and adequately-powered are required to strengthen current evidence.