Should your child wear ankle braces when playing youth sports?

By Janis Meredith | Posted 12/8/2014

There is a lot of discussion among medical experts about the pros and cons of using ankle braces and knee supports, but ultimately it is a decision athletes and parents must make on their own.

What do the experts say?

Many experts feel that ankle and knee braces are beneficial for young athletes. A study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health concluded that high school basketball players who wore stabilizing lace-up ankle braces had 68 percent fewer injuries than athletes who did not.

The study, done on 14- to 18-year-olds strongly advises that young athletes who suffered a previous injury or sprain should wear a brace to prevent an injury from recurring. It also seems to show that every teen should wear an ankle brace to prevent injuries in the first place.

I also heard from one doctor who said this:

As a physiotherapist who works with athletes, it is my opinion that bracing is helpful after an injury when the tissue may be vulnerable and can be easily re-injured. It’s a great way to get back into activity sooner after an injury. However, when you wear a brace just for prevention, you are altering the optimal lower extremity biomechanics. With an ankle brace, you are limiting ankle movement, and this means that the movement will come from elsewhere else – the knee, hip or low back – potentially leading to injury somewhere else. It is always better to work on strengthening, proprioception training and movement control instead of wearing braces.

What does this mom say?

I’ve heard the concerns from experts who say that ankle braces make for weaker ankles in the long run. I’m not a physical trainer or an expert in the field of athletic injuries, but I am a mom with extensive sports parenting experience. I’ve mothered my kids through a lot of injuries during the past 20 years, and that has made me a brace supporter.

I’ve had three kids play sports since they were very small. They didn’t wear braces when they were young, but when our two serious basketball players had their first ankle sprains, the school’s physical trainer strongly urged us to invest in ankle braces for our kids. From my experience, ankle braces were well worth the investment.

More facts about ankle and knee braces

Before you make your decision on whether to brace or not, consider these additional facts:

  • You can start your child wearing ankle braces at a younger-than-high-school age. The University of Wisconsin study points out that as long as there is a size of brace that fits the child well, it is probably appropriate.
  • If you are debating on whether braces should be worn at practices as well as game, the UW study recommends that for a sport such as basketball, braces should definitely be worn for both because athletes are just as likely to roll ankles in practice.
  • Remember that wearing a brace does not take the place of good rehab and working with a physical therapist.
  • Braces can be worn in other sports such as football or volleyball if the athlete’s play is not affected and if an athletic trainer determines that it is a good idea.
  • Ankle sprain rates double in the one to two years following a sprain. In fact, 30 to 59 percent of people who sprain their ankles develop chronic instability. Since several studies have shown that bracing does reduce the risk of re-injury, you may want to make invest in those braces.
  • Ankle and knee braces should never be a replacement for muscle strengthening. When our kids injured ankles and knees, the trainers suggested several exercises to help them strengthen the muscles around their joints. A combination of bracing with specific exercises will help reduce risk of re-injury.
  • Knee braces do not seem to work well to stop knee injuries from happening. But they can be used as support to stabilize the knee after surgery or injury. Always get a doctor’s advice on whether to use a knee brace to help with recovery and rehab.

Are ankle braces right for your child? That is a decision that only you can make, but be sure you weigh the facts before deciding. My guess is that after your child suffers his first ankle injury – whether it’s a break or sprain – you’ll be bracing up.

Janis B. Meredith, sports mom and coach’s wife, writes a sports parenting blog called JBM Thinks. She authored the Sports Parenting Survival Guide Series and has recently launched a podcasting series for sports parents. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.