Preventing Ankle Sprains – Ankle Braces (Part 4)

When all of the risk factors for spraining an ankle cannot be eliminated you may want to consider some outside help to reduce the likelihood that an ankle sprain will occur. Braces have been used effectively for decades to reduce the frequency and severity of these injuries[1], [2], [3],. In this article some of the most common and best researched styles of braces will be discussed so that you can know which brace will give you the best odds.

First, you must understand that the goal of an ankle brace is to restrict excessive motion in the joint while still allowing normal ranges of movement. This is easier said than done. While there are many braces out there only a very few have any research to prove that they work. Don’t be fooled into believe many manufacturer’s claims that they have scientific research to prove that their design works. They base this claim off of the fact that there has been scientific research done on braces similar to theirs. However, you must recognize that when research is performed on a brace the materials and manufacturing are also being tested, not just the design.

Braces are made to either fit inside or outside of a person’s shoe or boot. There are two basic designs of ankle braces available on the market: stirrups and boots. (yes, it sounds very country and western).

Stirrup braces have a heel plate or support under the foot, and straight pieces that run up the inside or outside of the ankle to the lower leg. These two side pieces are strapped together and the brace hugs the ankle joint. There are a couple variations on the design including a hinge between the bottom support and the side pieces to facilitate more normal movement as the ankle joint swings forward and back. Another variation is a full foot plate complete with arch support. Some stirrup braces will have air cushions on the side pieces for increased comfort and mobility.

Boot braces come in several designs as well from neoprene slip on braces which do little more than keep the ankle warm and add some mild compression (there is little to no evidence indicating that they prevent ankle sprains) to lace up boots with rigid side supports. Some boot style braces will be made of leather, others of nylon mesh, and others of a less restrictive and less effective material. Some will be fastened with Velcro straps or clips instead of laces.

When it comes to a comparison between these two styles of braces, the research gives a slight edge to certain stirrup braces[4]. In clinical trials they have been shown to be more effective in limiting the range of motion of the ankle joint as well as preventing more ankle sprains in real-life situations. This being said, the boot style braces are also effective for reducing the occurrence of ankle sprains.

So does this mean that you should definitely choose a stirrup brace over a boot brace? Not necessarily. Another factor to consider is the comfort of the brace. Even though stirrup braces have a little more evidence for their effectiveness, not everybody finds them comfortable to wear. This all depends on the personal preference and anatomical uniqueness of the individual wearing it. If a brace rubs or chafes the skin of the ankle joint, it is not the best option. In addition, if a person cannot walk or run normally or close to it then the brace could actually leave that person more prone to injuries of the ankle or other joints. There may be a trade-off to be made when it comes to your comfort and selecting the right brace for you.

The cost of a brace makes it a particularly desirable strategy for preventing ankle sprains. A typical brace will cost between $30-$50 depending on the model and where you buy[5]. This is a one-time investment that may last a whole season of sports or more depending on how much it is used. When compared to other techniques such as taping, a brace can be a very economical and effective choice.