Chris Giles is a retired professional footballer who captained Salisbury City FC then became first team coach. He describes his persistent footballers’ ankle injury and his search for a solution before he was successfully treated at LFAC.
The original injury took place when I was 20 years old. I was playing in one of those pointless, end-of-season matches and got caught in a tackle. I knew straight away that something wasn’t right and at first, thought it was a sprained ankle. In fact, it was a fracture of the talus, the small bone that connects the heel bone to the lower leg bones.
Back then, there was less guidance about rehabilitation and as a young player, I wanted to get back as quickly as possible, so I started playing again far too soon. But from that point, my ankle was never right again.
I would pick up a lot of sport injuries. On a cold, hard pitch, I would hardly get any dorsiflexion in my foot at all. Because of this, my running gait was all wrong, resulting in many muscle problems and injuries, worsening over the years.
By the age of 30, if I played on a Sunday, it would take until the following Friday to recover from the pain of the match. The pain could be so severe that at times, particularly at night, my ankle would give way and I’d fall over.
In April 2012, I Had Surgery in the South-West
Where I was based at the time, it was a microfracture procedure, which is often used in sports medicine. The idea is that by creating tiny fractures in the underlying bone, this triggers new cartilage to grow.
When I came round after the operation, I was in terrible pain, which was obviously not a good sign. It didn’t really improve during the weeks and months that followed. I could very clearly feel an impingement within my ankle joint which was stopping me from moving it fully without pain. The trouble was, I had three scans and none of them showed where the impingement was located.
I saw a surgeon in Bristol and had some more scans, but he said there was nothing he could do for me; with more surgery, there would be a high risk of making things worse rather than better. Again, the impingement, which is a small bone spur, was not showing up on the scans.
I was recommended to visit the London Foot and Ankle Centre
Then a friend I met through cycling suggested going to the London Foot and Ankle Centre as they had a lot of experience of working with sportspeople.
I saw David Redfern, who was the first surgeon to identify the impingement from scans. He said he would be able to do something to help me, but was also very frank and honest, explaining he could improve the situation for me, but it wouldn’t feel like a perfect, new ankle.
Mr Redfern said there was no benefit from doing anything with the cartilage but he would go in and trim the impingement.
Results after my Surgery
My operation took place in January 2013. The moment I came round from surgery, I had a gut feeling that it had worked. There was no pain whatsoever and I could quickly feel that the impingement had gone.
As a member of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), I had unlimited access to physiotherapy and rehabilitation at Lillishall.
As a lower league footballer though, you have to be pretty proactive. I would drive up to Lillishall in my camper van, so I could go through my rehabilitation there during the day then sleep in the van at night.
It took a lot of work and the physiotherapists at Lillishall are excellent. I was working to improve the muscle memory around the ankle joint, changed my running style to shorter steps with a quicker cadence and lost eight kilos. All of these changes reduced the overall load going through the ankle joint.
At the end of the 2013 football season, I announced my retirement. I’ve got to deal with my ankle for the rest of my life – trying to do two or three more seasons would have caused so much pain and damage, it wouldn’t have been worth it. Even so, retiring early is a still a massive shock and adjustment from a life in football.
Playing football is out for me now and so is tennis, basketball and all multi-directional sports. They put too much of a strain on my ankle. But now I can run comfortably for up to an hour, I love to swim and to cycle. My fitness level is really good; I just can’t do anything that is multi-directional.
In September 2013, I did an Iron Man event in west Wales, which involves a 4km swim, a 180 km bike ride and then running a marathon. I think I probably neglected to tell Mr Redfern what I was planning. It was something I’d always wanted to do and as a novice, went into my debut with no fear.
I knew the marathon would be very difficult and as expected, after an hour of running, my ankle locked up so I ended up walking. But I made it and was doing it for my Mum, who had cancer twice in the last five years. I was raising money for Macmillan to give something back after all the support they provided for her.
I’m at peace with the decision to retire from football and knowing what I can and can’t do. When I saw Mr Redfern, I was in a lot of pain and had been told previously, by another surgeon, that nothing could be done, which is a very difficult thing to hear.
So I am enormously grateful to Mr Redfern for finding a solution and for surgery which has undoubtedly made a very big difference to my quality of life.