Bracing for action: Are ankle braces effective for volleyball players?

Ankle sprains are the most common recreational sports injury, with ankle injuries making up about 25% of all adult sports injuries. To combat ankle sprains, ankle braces have become popular in sports that require jumping and cutting. In volleyball, ankles account for about 40% of all injuries. Volleyball players in particular have embraced the use of prophylactic ankle braces, with some coaches making ankle bracing mandatory for their players. With rates that high, who wouldn’t want to protect their ankles? But are braces really effective in reducing the risk of ankle sprains? We’re going to answer some frequently asked questions about ankle braces, based on the most current literature available.

Do ankle braces prevent injury?

In healthy, active people without a history of ankle sprains, studies have not shown a benefit to wearing prophylactic braces (those intended to prevent injury). Most studies do not report injury severity, so it is certainly possible that braces affect the severity of sprains—unfortunately there just isn’t good data out there to support it.

Do ankle braces prevent re-injury?

It does appear that braces are effective for ankles that have been sprained before, especially within the first year after injury. Ankle sprain rates double in the 1-2 years following a sprain. Furthermore, 30-50% of people who sprain their ankle develop chronic instability. Prevention of reinjury following a sprain is therefore vital, and several studies have shown that bracing does reduce the risk of reinjury. It is less clear if long-term use of bracing is necessary for injury prevention. A combination of bracing with specific ankle exercises is likely the best course of action in preventing re-injury. Read on for further information.

Does the type of brace matter?

Probably not. However, braces may vary in the type of support they offer. For example, lace-up braces add stability both on the sides and in the front and back, while stirrup type braces (such as Active Ankle) only support the ankle on the sides. This won’t make a difference in most people– as the majority of ankle sprains are inversion/lateral sprains– but if you have anterior/posterior instability it may make a difference. The second way braces work is by increasing proprioception and feedback to your sensory and musculoskeletal systems. Proprioception is your brain/body’s unconscious awareness of a joint’s location in space. Increased proprioception helps your muscles react faster and stronger when they are needed to support your ankle against a potentially injuring force. All types of braces will help give proprioceptive input. To date, studies looking at type of brace haven’t agreed upon the superiority of one brace type over another in injury prevention.

Will ankle bracing hurt my ankles?

There is currently no evidence supportive of ankle weakness or loss of function stemming from the use of ankle bracing. Contrary to the beliefs of some avid non-bracers, braces won’t weaken your lateral ankle muscles or cause them to ‘get lazy’ and stop working.

Will ankle bracing hurt my knees?

Probably not.  There is evidence to show that ankle injury rates increase with knee bracing, however no similar conclusions have been made linking knee injury rates to ankle bracing. Some lab studies have shown slight increases in knee rotation with ankle bracing versus without. It makes sense that if you restrict movement enough at one joint, other joints may compensate with extra movement. However, current studies are not substantial enough for this to factor into recommendations about ankle bracing.

Will ankle bracing hurt my vertical jump?

It shouldn’t. Several studies have shown that ankle bracing does not impair physical performance in activities like jumping, running, or agility. In other words, no looking down at your ankle brace in disbelief after burying that perfect set into the net during your company’s picnic volleyball game.

What are some other options to prevent ankle sprains?

Training: Training is a key component of staying healthy as an athlete, but often athletes forget to train their ankles. Incorporating ankle exercises can be as easy as trying to stand on one leg and balance. Once that’s easy, try balancing while doing arm exercises, standing on an unstable surface, or closing your eyes. You can also try leg exercises like squats, lunges, or side leg lifts on a BOSU or balance board. Agility and jump training programs, including training yourself to land from jumps with good body mechanics, may also improve your ankle strength and stability. Keep in mind that even the best training programs take 8-12 weeks to show benefits. If you’re coming off of a recent ankle sprain, you may benefit from the advice of a physical therapist to progress your exercises at a reasonable pace while your ankle heals.

Footwear: There has not been evidence that high tops or other shoe designs prevent ankle sprains. However, supportive shoes without too much wear and tear are important. Some minimalist footwear and shoes like shape-ups may promote increased movement in your foot and ankle. This may help strengthen your foot muscles during regular activities or running, but may also increase your risk of injury during jumping and landing, so keep those off the court.

Taping: Taping may provide a similar effect to bracing in the proprioception department, and has been proven to be about as effective to bracing to prevent re-injury. However, the mechanical stability of taping has been shown to decrease quickly: within 10 minutes of activity after taping, it is already 40% less effective mechanically, and may provide negligible support within an hour. Taping is also time consuming and requires a trained professional for optimal results. However, if you leave your brace at home, taping may be an alternative to bracing that is helpful in preventing reinjury.

Here are a few other things to consider when deciding whether or not to use an ankle brace:

-Most volleyball players have a ‘dominant ankle’, the ankle opposite their hitting arm. This ankle is more likely to be injured because they land on it more often. Setters may be at risk for more ankle sprains on the right because that is the ankle closest to the net, increasing risk for under the net contact after jump sets.

-If you play indoor and outdoor volleyball, consider that you may not be able to use bracing on the beach or grass, but should definitely be working on ankle strengthening and stability exercises to prevent injury outdoors.

-In almost all cases, bracing is not going to provide enough support to prevent a sprain when one player lands in a bad position on another player’s foot after jumping high off of the ground. The forces are just too high for the brace to control.

Recommended Reading

Verhagen EA, Bay K. Optimising ankle sprain prevention: a critical review and practical appraisal of the literature. Br J Sports Med. 2010 Dec;44(15):1082-8.

Dizon JM, Reyes JJ. A systematic review on the effectiveness of external ankle supports in the prevention of inversion ankle sprains among elite and recreational players. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(3):309-17.

Study Designs (publishing date TBD)

Janssen KW, van Mechelen W, Verhagen EA. Ankles back in randomized controlled trial (ABrCt): braces versus neuromuscular exercises for the secondary prevention of ankle sprains. Design of a randomised controlled trial. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2011; 27;12:210.

Janssen KW, van der Wees PJ, Rowe BH, de Bie R, van Mechelen W, Verhagen E. Interventions for preventing ankle ligament injuries. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011; Issue 12.

Additional References

Frey C, Feder KS, Sleight J. Prophylactic ankle brace use in high school volleyball players: a prospective study. Foot Ankle Int. 2010;31(4):296-300.

Hübscher M, Zech A, Pfeifer K, Hänsel F, Vogt L, Banzer W. Neuromuscular training for sports injury prevention: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(3):413-21.

SantosMJ, McIntire K, Foecking J, Liu W. The effects of ankle bracing on motion of the knee and the hip joint during trunk rotation tasks. Clin Biomech. 2004;19(9):964-71.

Venesky K, Docherty CL, Dapena J, Schrader J. J Prophylactic ankle braces and knee varus-valgus and internal-external rotation torque. Athl Train. 2006;41(3):239-44.

Verhagen EA, Van der Beek AJ, Bouter LM, Bahr RM, Van Mechelen W. A one season prospective cohort study of volleyball injuries. Br J Sports Med. 2004;38(4):477-81.

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