New Approach to Preventing Ankle Sprains

According to NCAA reporting, ligament strains to the ankle are the most common injury across 15 sports with a rate of 14.8% of all injuries.  They can be annoying, nagging and even debilitating.  Everyday I work with a large number of high risk athletes in sports such as basketball, volleyball, soccer and football.  Because of the high risk nature and high rate of ankle injuries, it is common at NCAA institutions to tape or brace their athletes in order to prevent as many injuries as possible.

According to the same NCAA report, teams that combine prophylactic taping or bracing with proprioceptive training see a reduction in their ankle injury rates by as much as 50%.  So, it makes sense to look hard at taping for injury prevention if you are an athletic trainer working with a high risk team.

The traditional approach to taping and bracing is to restrict ankle motion. While this has proven to be helpful over time, there are some limits and/or problems to traditional ankle taping and bracing:

  • Cost:  Taping an entire team every day prophylactically is cost prohibitive for a lot of teams and institutions.
  • Time:  The manpower required to tape a team every day is extensive.  Many of us are short handed as it is, and spending an hour every day taping is a big drain on staff.
  • Restricted Range:  The point of traditional taping is to restrict motion in order to prevent a sprain.  This is problematic because we also know that decreased range of motion at the ankle oftentimes leads to an increase in chronic pain elsewhere, usually the knee.  So, preventing an ankle injury can cause injury elsewhere.  This is especially true of bracing because they don’t stretch like tape does.
  • Tape Stretch:  Even though the point of taping is to restrict motion, research tells us that with most traditional ankle taping techniques the tape stretches within about 15-20 minutes, thus we aren’t restricting motion nearly as much as we think we are.
  • Bulk:  Many athletes don’t like the bulkiness of tape in their shoe.  And if they don’t like the bulkiness of tape, forget about a brace.  Braces are thick and don’t fit into shoes well at all.

All of these issues leaves a lot of us searching for better answers on ways that we can prevent ankle sprains for our athletes in the future.  As we look for clues, I think the answers actually lie right in the issue that we’re trying to improve upon.

As I said early in this post, NCAA reporting shows that prophylactic taping combined with training improves injury rates by as much as 50%.  I’m going to go ahead and assume (I know that isn’t a very safe assumption, but I’ll go with it), that everyone is already performing some sort of proprioceptive neuromuscular education training as part of their athlete’s offseason training, so for the rest of this discussion, we can narrow things down to just the taping issue.

If we know that taping helps, but we also know that because of the relatively quick stretch that occurs with our traditional ankle taping techniques, then what explains why it works?  If we aren’t restricting range of motion, then why is it that taping reduces injury rates?

The answer is the nervous system.

We now know that by placing tape on the skin, we stimulate mechanoreceptors that are imbedded within the skin and fascia which feed information directly to the brain.  The simple act of stimulating the skin increases the volume and frequency of the conversation between the brain and the part of the body with tape on it.

When we improve this conversation, we improve body awareness, balance, and motor control (among other things).  I now believe that while it is great that we have worked hard over the years to find the perfect heel lock, basket weave or stirrup placement to prevent an ankle sprain, the reality is that the most important factor to preventing injuries is simply having tape on the skin.  Of course this may not be true for all athletes in all situations, but I believe this is true when talking about relatively healthy athletes who are looking to prevent a sprain before it happens.

If we assume that all that I just said is true, then it makes perfect sense to use Kinesiology tape as an injury prevention strategy over traditional tape or bracing.  Kinesiology tape solves all 5 of the issues that I presented above with traditional taping or bracing.  It doesn’t restrict motion, it is designed to stretch, it fits nicely in a sock and shoe, and because it can be applied with a very small amount of tape and stay on for several days, it solves the cost and time issues as well.

Interested in learning more about preventing or treating sport-specific injuries? Watch my courses “Preventing Football Injuries with Exercise and Taping Techniques” or “Treating Basketball Specific Injuries” on the WebExercises Academy. 

Do you want to educate your patients on ankle sprains? Click here for our patient education blog post and our 3 D condition video.

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Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS

Author Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS

Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS serves as the Prevention, Rehab, and Physical Performance Coordinator for 17 sports at Missouri State University. His sports medicine background is diverse, also serving as the strength and conditioning coach for Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball and Volleyball during his time with at MSU. Prior to working in college athletics, Mitch trained athletes in the private sector of all ages and abilities. Mitch is also the founder and president of Maximum Training Solutions, a full service Sports Medicine and Sports Performance consultancy. Mitch is a noted speaker on both a regional and national level, and has been published multiple times in professional journals and coaching websites.

More posts by Mitch Hauschildt, MA, ATC, CSCS