A joint is really just a place where several bones meet, and your ankle has two of them. The "true" ankle joint joins the two bones of your lower leg -- the tibia and fibula -- and the talus, a bone that makes up the core of your foot. The "subtalar" joint, meanwhile, joins the talus and the calcaneus, better known as the heel. Cartilage sits at the ends of your bones, serving as cushions, while ligaments hold the bones together. If you have pain in your ankle area, it may be due to a loss of cartilage, or a strained ligament or muscle. In some cases, stretching the muscles and ligaments around the heel and ankle can help, though it's important to talk to your doctor before you start any type of therapy.
A simple wall stretch is one way to stretch the muscles around the ankle, including the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles at the backs of the legs. Stand with your body facing a wall and stride forward with one leg. If only one ankle is hurting, step forward with the foot that is not in pain. Bend the forward knee slightly and place your hands on the wall, about chin-height, keeping your back leg straight. Press your upper body toward the wall, keeping both of your heels flat on the floor. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds, then release. After a short break, repeat the exercise, then switch legs. Alternatively, allow the back leg to bend, which places more focus on the soleus muscle.
Exercise Band Stretches
Another way of stretching the gastrocnemius is with an exercise band stretch. Sit on the floor with both legs out in front of you, then wrap a resistance band around the bottom of one foot to begin a plantar flexion exercise. Hold the other end of the band in your hands, creating tension between your foot and hands. Point your toes, then slowly release back to the starting position. After 10 repetitions, switch to an ankle dorsiflexion exercise. Wrap the exercise band around a sturdy post or table leg, then sit on the floor and place your foot inside of the loop on the other end of the band. Pull your toes toward you, then slowly release, repeating the motion 10 times. If you don't have an exercise band, you can also do the plantar flexion exercise using just a towel.
Putting the muscles and ligaments around the ankle through a full range of motion is another way to stretch and strengthen the area. One way to accomplish this goal is to sit on a chair, hold one leg out, then do 10 clockwise circles, followed by 10 counter-clockwise circles. Physical therapists may also recommend the "alphabet" exercise, in which you practice "writing" the letters of the alphabet in the air with your big toe.