Ankle Support: The Definitive Guide
Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries, especially among more active young people. According to the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, 25,000 people sprain their ankles every day. That’s a lot of injured ankles!
Sometimes the soreness is mild and goes away on its own, but other times it lingers and you need extra ankle support to help lessen the pain and keep you from hurting the joint again. Below, we’ve outlined the five types of ankle support that can help ankle sprains of different severities.
Tape is frequently used to stabilize athletes’ joints, including the ankles, during workouts and games. Tape can be customized to exactly fit the patient’s ankle, and it will provide light, flexible support if the joint is already pretty strong and doesn’t need much help. However, the tape will stretch and loosen quickly due to all the sweat and movement, which obviously reduces the support it gives. (Braces will also stretch out with activity, but not as fast as tape.) Tape should only be applied by an athletic trainer or other certified professional to ensure that the joint is properly stabilized. Because of these factors, few people outside athletes use tape to treat swollen ankles.
Compression sleeves are made of a neoprene or elastic sleeve that stretches to fit the ankles. They also come in a wrap style that can be used to make an EZ fit ankle bootie for feet of any size. The fabric provides light support as well as compression, which reduces the swelling that often follows an ankle sprain. Compression braces also help keep the ankle warm, which decreases muscle stiffness and discomfort. Compression braces are a good choice if the ankle sprain is mild and the joint doesn’t need a lot of stabilization.
Many semi-rigid ankle supports come in a sleeve or lace-up design, which are sometimes combined with straps to make a figure 8 ankle brace. These braces provide more support than a compression-style brace, which is why they’re used for mild to moderate sprains. Some semi-rigid braces even include the option to slip plastic or metal inserts into the sides of the brace for added protection. The figure 8 straps also provide added support, as well as the ability to adjust the brace’s tightness without having to completely re-lace it. Semi-rigid braces are designed to limit both side-to-side and up-and-down motion, meaning they provide “full ankle support.” These braces do require more time to take on and off, especially if they come with the additional figure 8 straps.
A subset of semi-rigid ankle support, hinged braces are made with side supports (usually made of plastic) attached to the heel part by a hinge. The side supports are fastened around the ankle with one or two Velcro straps. The hinge structure might also be combined with the lace-up design for extra support. Hinged braces are meant to limit side-to-side motion of the ankle without hampering up-and-down movement, which is what sets these apart from the other semi-rigid ankle supports.
The most restrictive of all the ankle supports on this list, rigid braces are designed to keep the ankle from moving as much as possible in the event of a severe sprain. The hard, plastic shell cups around the heel and then extends past the ankle up towards the calf. The plastic is held in place by adjustable Velcro straps. While extremely supportive, rigid ankle braces limit mobility (that’s literally what they are designed to do!) and can be difficult to fit into a shoe vs. the other options on this list. Usually rigid braces are used just until the ankle heals, and then swapped out for a more functional lace-up brace.
The type of ankle support product you choose will depend on the acuteness of the strain—mild, moderate or severe—and how much mobility you need. In fact, if you have a really bad sprain, you might progress from one type of brace to another as the healing process goes on. Since ankle sprains are such common injuries, it’s a good idea to know the five types of ankle supports in case you or a loved one ever turns an ankle.