Ankle injuries are among the most commonly experienced injuries in sports, particularly in activities requiring sudden sharp changes in speed or direction. These injuries typically result from forced lateral movement such as when landing awkwardly from a jump or losing your balance when running at high speed. Using a properly designed ankle brace will reduce the risk of these types of ankle injuries. An ankle brace will also help the patient maintain regular activities while recovering from an ankle injury.
The human foot is constructed with several internal supports that hold the bones together in their correct positions. These positions allow the foot to support the weight of the human body in the most effective way possible. These internal supports are the ligaments, tendons, muscles and other tissues that hold the bones together. They are normally sufficient to withstand the forces to which the foot may be subject when walking or standing normally.
However, for athletes and, in particular, athletes in contact sports or sports requiring sharp changes in direction of movement, the foot will regularly experience forces that are greater than normal and that may act in unusual directions. Ankle braces function as “external supports” that supplement the internal supports holding foot bones and other structures in their correct positions.
Three types of foot movement that can produce unusual forces on the foot for which the internal supports may not be enough are ankle inversion/ eversion and plantar flexion.
An ankle inversion causes the foot to point inward and places abnormal stresses on the ligaments on the outside of the ankle (see image on the left). When these ligaments become overstretched or torn in response to this type of movement, you have what medical professionals call an inversion ankle sprain. This is actually the more common type of sprain. It can happen either during sporting activity or while performing everyday activities such as clearing snow or walking on an icy pavement.
Under ankle eversion, the foot turns outward and unusual stress in placed on the ligaments on the inside of the foot. Tearing or overstretching these ligaments in response to such a movement results in an eversion ankle sprain. This type of injury tends to mainly happen to serious athletes.
Under plantar flexion, the foot points downward away from the leg. This movement places unusual stresses on the ligaments on the top of the foot.
Ankle Braces As External Supports
Ankle braces serve to limit ankle inversion or eversion movements as well as plantar flexion.As a result, the wearer of such a brace has less risk of damaging foot ligaments as a result of these movements. For more information on how an ankle brace can be of use in preventing such injuries, please read our post on the benefits of using an ankle brace for sprains.
Types of Ankle Braces
When choosing your brace, you can select from a wide range of designs such as advanced or basic ankle supports, wraparound braces or rigid ankle braces. Each has a particular purpose, as explained below:
Ankle sleeves provide moderate compression and therapeutic warmth. They will help with stiff or sore ankles. However, they will not offer the support patients may need for protection from moderate or serious ankle sprains or instability.
Ankle braces with straps offer a higher level of support than ankle sleeves and will provide protection from mild to moderate ankle sprains and instability. They will also provide customizable compression.;
Stirrup ankle braces provide excellent lateral support to prevent ankle inversion or eversion sprains. They are generally useful for serious ankle sprains as well as post op recovery or rehabilitation;
Lace up ankle brace designs offer high levels of support and are a good choice for everyday (non sports) protection from ankle sprains.
In practice, many of the ankle braces available on the market are actually hybrid designs that incorporate features of two or more of the categories above.
Choosing The Right Ankle Brace
When choosing an ankle brace, we can offer the following general advice:
If you choose a brace with a lace-up design, make sure that the laces are not too long or short. Then you can tie them correctly;
Ensure that the brace has the right size. To ensure they perform as the manufacturers intended, there should be no gaps between your skin and your ankle support;
If you are wearing your brace for treatment of rehabilitation of an injury, be sure to wear it during everyday activities. Don’t wear it only during physically intensive activities;
You may be wearing your brace for preventative purposes. It is then particularly important to wear it while playing sports that involve lateral movement.
A healthcare professional will be able to advise on which of these situations applies to his or her patient.