Knowing Whether and When to Use—And Not Use—a Knee or Ankle Brace

Should you wear a knee or ankle brace after an injury? STACK Expert Ryan Sprague helps you decide whether and when to leave the brace at home.

Knee Brace

Every year, many athletes suffer devastating ankle injuries, knee sprains and ACL/MCL tears. And most of these injuries aren't even contact-related.

Why are knee and ankle injuries so common? The answer is simple: insufficient training. Ankle and knee health is overlooked in most training programs, when it should be one of the most emphasized.

Athletes often use a brace and/or medical tape to "fix" an injured ankle or knee. This only makes the problem worse, because braces and tape limit the body's natural mobility and ability to stabilize. Failure to address the problem, rather than merely trying to "fix it," often leads to repeated injury.

Why do these injuries happen? The simplest answer is this: The body is comprised of different joints. Some are stable and others are mobile. The ankle is a mobile joint that can move and rotate, whereas the knee is a stable joint that bends and flexes. Alter the ways these joints function, and you will most definitely suffer an injury. Mobile joints are not meant to be stable, and stable joints are not meant to be mobile.

Ankle Injuries

Let's first talk about the ankle. A brace or medical tape is fine initially after an injury as the joint needs additional support. But it is not a long-term solution. The problem with using a brace for an extended period is that it immobilizes a joint that is supposed to be mobile. It's like locking the steering wheel of your car in a fixed position while driving on a curvy road. You know you need to turn and move the wheel, so why would you lock it? You wouldn't. So don't immobilize a mobile joint.

There are two possible outcomes to the continual use of a brace or tape: a high ankle sprain or a knee injury. According to the American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society, a high ankle sprain is an injury to the ligaments above the ankle that connect the tibia to the fibula. It occurs from twisting and rotating the foot while the ankle is held in position and unable to move freely. Rather than the ankle rolling at the joint, the entire foot twists, tearing the high-ankle ligaments.

A high ankle sprain is much more painful than a regular ankle sprain, and recovery time is significantly longer, typically causing an athlete to miss a large portion of the season.

Knee Injuries

Usually more serious than ankle injuries, knee injuries can potentially be season- or career-ending. If the ankle loses its ability to move because of a brace or tape, the body will rely on the knee. Being a stable joint, the knee is not meant to rotate or move laterally. When it does, the athlete will almost certainly suffer an injury such as a meniscus tear or an ACL/MCL tear or strain.

In theory, a brace seems like a good idea with a knee injury, since it is designed to provide support and stability. In reality, it is a bad idea. Knee stability is created through muscle, tendon and ligament strength in the upper leg. Take away that strength, and the knee becomes an unstable joint, prone to injury. If worn for an extended period, a knee brace can actually weaken the knee. The knee relies on the stability provided by the brace instead of its natural stabilizers. A weak knee with a strong brace is still a weak knee.

This is why many athletes repeatedly injure the same knee throughout their careers. They opt to wear a brace instead of properly rehabilitating and strengthening the knee to make it strong and function without a brace.

A knee brace can be helpful for adding stability while the knee is recovering, but it should not be a long-term solution to "treat" or "fix" the injured area. Instead, the knee should be treated with physical therapy and a proper rehabilitation and strength program. The stronger the knee, the more resistant it will be to injury.

If there is one athlete who has properly addressed his knee injury, it is Adrian Peterson. Peterson's ACL/MCL injury during the 2011 NFL season was a rare contact-related incident where a defender tackled him by throwing his body directly into the side of Peterson's knee while Peterson's leg was firmly planted. Following reconstructive surgery, Peterson reportedly wore a knee brace. But soon after beginning treatment, he no longer wore it.

Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards in the 2012 season, becoming one of only seven players ever to rush for 2,000 yards in one season. If Peterson's success doesn't convince you of the power of a proper rehabilitation and strength program versus the use of a knee brace, I don't know what will.

Conclusion

Be proactive about ankle and knee injury prevention. Make sure your training program includes exercises that mobilize your ankles and strengthen your knees so they function properly and minimize your risk of injury. If you do happen to suffer an ankle or knee injury, use a brace and tape only as a temporary solution. Unless advised by a doctor, they should be used solely during the initial phase of your recovery.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: REHAB | SPRAINED ANKLE | INJURY | ANKLE SPRAIN | ANKLE INJURIES