Sprained your ankle? A cursory Google search will tell you that the best course of action is rest, elevation, ice, compression, and protection. But with those last two points, people remain divided. Should you tape an ankle sprain or brace it? Here are the pros and cons of these two methods to help you decide.
Anatomy of an ankle sprain
But first, what precisely is an ankle sprain? And why tape or brace it, to begin with? Your ankle has a total of 11 ligaments, including 4 medial ligaments, 3 lateral, and 4 syndesmotic. These ligaments are tough, fibrous bands of tissue responsible for absorbing shock, preventing the ankle from moving in potentially damaging directions, and stabilising the joint.
An ankle sprain happens when you injure one (or more) of these ligaments. Usually, this is the result of twisting or rolling your ankle, which can happen while running, jumping, and even walking (especially on uneven surfaces like cracked pavements or hiking trails). In most cases, a sprain will be relatively minor, ranging from a simple overstretch to a partial tear (Grade 1- Grade 2). In high-intensity sports and some accidents, you might sustain a Grade 3 sprain, which is a complete tear of the ligament.
With a sprain, you’ll generally feel:
- Pain when you put weight on the joint
- Tenderness around the area
- Restricted range of motion
- And instability.
As you can imagine, stabilising the joint, reducing swelling, and supporting it through movement are of the utmost importance. And here is where conservative methods like kinesio tape and ankle braces come in handy. But which one is better for your ankle?
Research shows that taping and bracing are both effective in the conservative treatment of ankle sprains, but with some caveats:
- Taping an ankle sprain with athletic (rigid) or kinesio (stretchy) tape will need to be done properly. If it’s too tight, it will impair your circulation. If it’s too loose, it won’t offer the support you need.
- To brace an ankle sprain, you’ll need an ankle brace that fits you perfectly and is made of quality materials. For example, our MalleoTrain Plus fits the bill as it incorporates medical-grade compression knit, adjustable strap, and anatomic silicon pads. It's also hand-sewn into a wide variety of sizes. A brace made of neoprene, meanwhile, won’t have standardised compression. In most cases, it will also be mass-produced, so you'll be hard-pressed to find the perfect size - and by extension, an effective brace.
- Kinesio tape and softer compression braces aren’t suitable for Grade 3 and even some Grade 2 sprains. Athletic tape is also not recommended, as it impairs circulation and needs to be reapplied every ~5 hours. Hence, for a Grade 3, the best course of action is immobilising the joint with a splint brace like the CaligaLoc. In chronic sprains and ankle instability, the semi-rigid MalleoLoc is the best course of action, according to a study in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research.
- While braces and tape are both good at stabilising the joint, quality ankle braces may offer better blood flow and pain relief as their compression is accurate throughout and they incorporate pads to massage and relieve painful areas. The MalleoTrain, for instance, was found to be highly effective in pain relief in mild-to-moderate soft tissue injuries.
As you can imagine, taping an ankle sprain is a process. You’ll need to shave your legs or apply pre-wrap to avoid an inadvertent waxing, spray on taping base spray to minimise friction and thus skin irritation, and either carefully and accurately apply the tape yourself or seek out a specialist to help you. Braces, however, you can put on pretty easily. Just pull them onto bare skin (shaved or unshaved, doesn't matter), adjust the silicon as necessary, and strap in.
As for long-wearing comfort, many athletes say that kinesio tape is very comfortable to wear and fits into shoes without issue. But we’d like to note that not all ankle braces are like clunky moon boots. Our soft compression braces incorporate flat knit weave, making them take up about as much space as socks. And unless your shoes are extremely tight around the sides of the heel, the silicon pads will have no issue squeezing in there, too. Semi-rigid and splint braces can be a bit trickier, as they are slightly bulkier. But you can generally get away with fitting them into most shoes.
As a bonus, plenty of rugby players wear our soft and semi-rigid braces inside their boots during practise and games.
According to a study in BMC Muscular Disorders, taping has more of a chance of causing complications than bracing.
In some cases, taping can cause skin irritation, especially if applied directly to the skin. You may have a reaction to the adhesives or get irritation from the friction as the tape pulls on your skin when you move. However, you can generally avoid these by applying a pre-wrap before the tape. Taping may also impair circulation if improperly applied, so make sure to go to a specialist so they instruct you on how to do it. YouTube and other online resources can be helpful, but proper strapping technique and consistency is paramount to ensuring adequate support.
Neoprene braces aren’t particularly breathable, and often slip out of position due to the resulting moisture build up. However, you can avoid these issues by doing your research and opting for a quality brace.
There’s also a common misconception that braces make you dependent on them. And while it’s true that wearing an immobilising brace long-term will weaken some tissues, the effect generally won’t be severe, and you can reverse it through strengthening and mobilisation exercises (once approved by your clinician). Softer compression braces, meanwhile, carry no such issues. Our MalleoTrain Plus, for instance, stabilises your ankle while still allowing for full range of motion and relieving pain, meaning you’ll still be able to use the joint pretty much as normal whilst the knitted material stimulates the muscles around the joint.
Taping an ankle sprain will generally be cheaper short term. Kinesio tape, for instance, costs around 20 dollars a roll, and you may only need a few applications before the ligaments recover enough to do without. Bracing, however, will be cheaper in the medium-to-long run. Even though quality braces come at a premium, you’ll only need one ankle brace for any recurring issues and more severe or stubborn sprains.
Additionally, as braces are much easier to use, you’ll be more likely to stick with them for the full recovery period. Without proper treatment, re-spraining the ankle is very likely. So, while a brace may cost more, it could save you a few more trips to the physio.
To sum up
Bracing and taping are both effective ways of recovering from an ankle sprain. But braces are much easier to slip on, are more useful and usable for stubborn or severe sprains and will generally help better in improving circulation and relieving pain.
See our full collection of ankle supports and braces: Ankle Braces and Supports
If you require assistance selecting the right product for your needs or wearing the brace, call us on 1300 668 466 or contact us via live chat.
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