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A complete review on taping versus bracing (post injury)

We are all likely to experience a sporting injury at some stage, whether it results from overuse or a specific incident i.e. impact, slip or trip. The nature and severity of the injury will determine the type of treatment required and how long you are likely to be out of action.

Overuse injuries are generally when the body is telling us that we have pushed ourselves too far and need a rest. Failing to warm up properly or pushing beyond your limit can cause the odd problem, from an ache or pain, to swelling and inflammation to something more serious requiring a clinical diagnosis.

Incidents of trauma could be a trip or fall when running, a bad tackle on the football pitch or a hamstring injury resulting from a sprint on the athletics track.

What to do after an injury

Application of ice on a sprained ankle showing bruisingYour route to full fitness depends on the nature of the injury experienced. What you do immediately after incurring that injury can influence your recovery time.

The first thing you need to do is stop and rest. Continuing may make it worse and can even lead to a more serious injury. An example would be where you sprain your ankle and continue to run. A mild sprain can affect joint stability, therefore continuing to run can increase the likelihood of you rolling your ankle again which may further damage the ligaments. In serious cases you may even cause a rupture which would require a surgical procedure to remedy and a lengthy layoff. So stopping and resting in the first instance is the best thing you can do.

Following the majority of injuries you will notice inflammation. This should be treated using ice which can also help offer pain relief. It is important not to apply a heat pack to the affect region as this will not help manage the swelling.

Rest is also important as the majority of sports injuries are self-limiting and will get better on their own following a period of rest. In the event that this does not happen you should seek a professional diagnosis where a complete treatment programme can be created for you, covering rest, physiotherapy, the use of a brace and even surgery. Typically a combination of these are offered.

What is a brace?

Braces are designed to help enhance mobility following injury and keep you active for longer rather than simply immobilising the affected region.

Following ankle ligament injuries early “safe” mobilisation is useful, with the ligaments and bones healing better and quicker when controlled “normal” loads are applied. If you prescribe an Exoform Ankle Support (with straps) for example, you can control the movement of the subtalar joint and prevent the extreme inversion of the joint that caused the problem.

Bracing can be used to extend the therapy a Physiotherapist is providing. The Physiotherapist is normally with the patient for 15-20 minutes and they go through the exercises but if you have a brace that can apply a therapeutic stretch outside of that short window then the benefit is likely to be more.

Other examples include Night splints following foot and ankle injuries which can be worn at night.

Material for bracing differs depending on brand, with sports bracing typically manufactured in neoprene. The main purpose behind such materials is that they are comfortable for the wearer rather an inconvenience.

What is tape?

Sometimes referred to as athletic tape, it is designed to work in very much the same way as a brace by maintaining bone and muscle alignment when active. The tape itself is self-adhesive and attaches directly to the skin and is worn following a host of sporting injuries.

The tape works to limit excessive or abnormal movements of the ligaments and joints. As with a brace it also offers proprioceptive benefits in making an individual more aware of their movements, thereby helping to reduce the risk of them pushing themselves too far.

Specialists have looked in detail at the perceived benefits of taping, one of these being their use in contact or collision based sports. In such sports the use of taping is more of a prophylactic option and works to reduce the severity of an injury incurred from impact.

Athletic tape is also used to help manage chronic conditions such as shin splints, with the tape being applied along the nerve or inflamed region to help ease pain.

Tape is also quite fashionable at the moment, especially as it comes in a variety of colours to make you stand out from the crowd.

Bracing versus Taping

They are both designed to do the same job in helping to keep an individual active however whereas most tape will only last 3-4 days before losing their effectiveness, braces are designed to keep up with your active lifestyle.

Compression can sometimes be an issue for patients. Some companies for instance recommend that you select the size up from what the packaging recommends due to the high level of compression a product may offer. Compression is a good thing for managing an injury, too much of it can be a little inconvenient though.

The quality of your brace is something you always need to consider. On the whole athletic tape is athletic tape, but there are loads of different types of braces, manufacturers, designs and prices. As with anything in life you only get what you’re paid for so a tubular bandage may say on the packaging it is designed to manage injuries but realistically it does nothing. Even the £5 braces you find in some sports shops say they do things but again you have to think twice about their effectiveness.

At the top end of the market you can get carbon fibre knee braces for use in extreme sports at £400+ each and these really do a great job but if you’ve sprained your ankle then paying £30-£50 depending on the type of brace you need should do the job. If you’re stuck in making a decision then jump online and check out the forums or speak with your physiotherapist.

As you would imagine from tape, it will lose its stickiness after a few days and will need new tape applying. Whilst taping is typically cheaper, should you have a long term injury to manage then the cost of buying multiple rolls can stack up. The question you have to ask yourself is how many £5 rolls will you need compared to a £30 brace?

When you exercise you sweat and this can affect the position of the tape causing it to slip and potentially lose its effectiveness. Bracing however comes as a sleeve which covers a larger area or a band where the compression can be dictated manually. Either way, the material is normally breathable which allows for perspiration whilst maintaining brace positioning.

The application of your tape can influence its effectiveness, applying to the wrong area can prove ineffective or even lead to blistering. Braces are designed to manage specific conditions, therefore include instructions on application to ensure it is done correctly and are moulded to the shape of the leg which makes it rather self-explanatory in its application.

Sizing may dictate the option you choose. If you have a thigh or hamstring sprain then compression shorts are normally recommended, however if you are rather petite then sometimes even the smallest size will go up to your elbows so tape is a more practical solution.

At the end of the day the option you choose is down to preference and experience. If you look at the world stage some athletes use tape and others use bracing, most notably Andy Murray sporting a pair of white ankle braces at Wimbledon a couple of years ago. It also depends on your injury and the medical advice you receive but doing some research beforehand will always help and trying out different options will allow you to understand how each option works for you when active as that is the main aim of wearing a brace or using tape…remaining active.