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Dec. 6, 2000 -- Ankle sprains are one of the most common and debilitating injuries for an athlete. We have all seen professional athletes wearing braces of some kind or walking around the playing field with taped-up ankles. But do these really work to prevent sprains? Researchers in the Netherlands have sifted through eight clinical studies on the subject and come up with their own conclusions, which are published in a recent issue of the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.

According to the authors, both tape and braces do work -- but with some caveats. If a sprain is going to happen, either is beneficial to lessen the severity. Both, as well, can prevent them from happening in the first place. But braces may have an edge, at least for certain people. The researchers found that only those with previous ankle injuries actually benefited from preventative bracing. Not true with tape. Other findings: Shoe height is a less-important factor in preventing ankle sprains than shoe newness. Proprioception -- your ability to know where your body parts are (in this case, your ankle) -- is also very important. The authors say that proprioceptive training, which heightens an athlete's sensitivity to the possibility for an ankle injury (so they can avoid it), benefits everyone.

What do practitioners say? In general, it takes good muscular strength and strong and proper shoes to prevent ankle sprains. And if they happen anyway, they shouldn't be ignored. "The most important thing is to strengthen the muscle groups that support and surround the joint," says Marje Albohm, MS, a certified athletic trainer at Orthopedics Indianapolis in Indiana.

Some of this might even be achieved using household items, says Al Green, MEd, former athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky and now with the Kessler Rehabilitation Centers. "Putting a weight of some type in a towel and curling it with the toes; picking up sticks or marbles with the toes increases dexterity and strength of the ankle."

But Albohm says there is still a problem. "The muscle groups [in the ankle] are relatively small. So the potential to really protect that joint is compromised," she says. "Even with the best strength-training, sprains do occur."

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