The ankle braces many football players wear to prevent injuries seem to work, a study of high school players suggests.
After following more than 2,000 football players during last year's season, researchers discovered that wearing ankle braces made players 61 percent less likely to suffer an ankle sprain or fracture.
"We were surprised with the findings," said Timothy A. McGuine, an athletic trainer and senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the work. "I didn't think the braces could be that effective."
In the study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, half of the players were told to wear fabric lace-up ankle braces while the other half had no extra protection.
The rate of ankle injuries without braces was about 11 per 10,000 games an athlete was in, and dropped to five per 10,000 with braces.
McGuine said he had focused on football players because they are the largest group of high school athletes in the U.S., numbering some 1.1 million players. Football players sustain a quarter of all high school athletic injuries or about 78,000 each year, according to a report from 2007.
Although ankle braces are used by some high school football players, their use has remained controversial.
McGuine, who recently did a similar study on ankle braces among teen basketball players, found many coaches were among the detractors and banned braces because they feared they might do more harm than good—for instance by limiting the ankles' mobility and causing knee injuries, including tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
But the new results didn't bear out that concern.
"We found the significant knee injuries were the same if you wore a brace or not," McGuine told Reuters. Of players who wore braces, 42 had knee injuries compared to 45 in the comparison group.
"Don't be afraid to go ahead and wear braces," McGuine said. "You shouldn't be fearful that it's going to cause a problem. It's going to take care of injuries."
The researchers found braces helped reduce ankle injuries among players both with and without previous ankle injuries. For the study, students from 50 Wisconsin high schools wore the Don-Joy Ankle Stabilizing Brace, a synthetic fabric with straps designed to fit the right or left foot, and laced in the front like a shoe. They were instructed to wear the braces during all practices and games throughout the season.
Now McGuine is beginning to study if coaches will get players to wear the braces once they've been recommended. The braces cost $22 to $35 each, but McGuine said they can help parents and schools save money because ankle injuries cost up to $700 for hospital emergency room visits and x-rays. Additionally, he said, braces could save young people injuries that could impact them for life.
"We don't do enough to reduce injuries in this population," McGuine said. "We worry about head injuries, but one third of ankle injuries can affect them a year or two after they get hurt, and they become more likely to have arthritis, be overweight or have cardiovascular disease, et cetera. If we make efforts to get all these middle and high school students active and don't protect them, we are not going to save any money."