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Home > Enhancing Athletic Performance and Preventing Injuries: The Role of Sports Bracing

Enhancing Athletic Performance and Preventing Injuries: The Role of Sports Bracing

Boyd W. Haynes III, MD

In the ever-evolving world of sports medicine, orthopaedic sports medicine physicians face the challenge of optimizing athlete performance while mitigating the risk of injury. Sports bracing has become a ubiquitous tool in the field of orthopaedic sports medicine, offering both preventative and rehabilitative benefits for athletes of all skill levels. Sports bracing offers the athlete mechanical support, giving proprioceptive (the sense of where the body is positioned and its movement in space) feedback, and providing injury prevention across most athletic disciplines. Commonly braced areas of the body include the knee, ankle, wrist, elbow, and shoulder, addressing conditions such as ligament sprains, tendonitis, and joint instability.

In this article, I’ll explore the efficacy and application of sports bracing from the viewpoint of a sports medicine physician, and look at the biomechanical principles underlying sports bracing, its role in injury prevention, management of acute injuries, and support during rehabilitation.

Biomechanics – Here are three important functions sports bracing provides:

  1. Stability – by limiting excessive movement and providing stability to anatomic areas that are vulnerable to ligamentous sprains, muscle strains and joint dislocations, injury can be lessened
  2. Force Redistribution – by altering joint mechanics and how the joint is loaded, the joint can be protected during motion
  3. Providing optimal alignment – Enhances proprioceptive feedback, which aids with neuromuscular control, reducing the likelihood of injury or recurrence

Injury Prevention

Preventative bracing can be an integral component of any athlete’s injury risk reduction program, particularly in high-impact sports characterized by repetitive stress with forceful, dynamic movements. Athletes with a history of ligamentous laxity or joint instability may benefit from preventative bracing to reinforce anatomical structures and minimize the risk of traumatic injuries. Moreover, evidence suggests that functional bracing can enhance proprioceptive awareness, allowing athletes to adaptively respond to performance anxiety and maintain joint integrity during athletic activity.

Prescription Considerations

When I prescribe a sports brace, it may look easy! But I have to apply my understanding of biomechanics, injury pathology, and the specific factors that each of my patient athletes brings into the exam room. I must identify functional deficits (if any), anatomical vulnerabilities (most of us have them), and understand performance goals before prescribing any bracing solution.

Acute Injury Management

When acute musculoskeletal injuries occur, sports bracing serves as a valuable adjunct to conventional treatment as it provides immediate stabilization for the injury and also can facilitate early mobilization. Braces designed for acute injury management often incorporate adjustable straps, customizable fittings, and compression elements to alleviate pain, reduce swelling, and promote tissue healing. Additionally, the application of protective braces can safeguard injured joints from further trauma and reduce fatigue, enabling athletes to safely return to activities of daily living and play, while also minimizing the risk of exacerbation of their injury.

After the Injury – Rehabilitation Support

During the rehabilitation phase, sports bracing facilitates functional recovery by keeping joints stable and aligned. Progressive rehabilitation regimens typically involve the gradual weaning of braces as athletes regain strength, flexibility, and neuromuscular control.

Limitations and Concerns of Sports Bracing

  1. Overreliance on the use of bracing by an athlete may lead to dependency and remove focus from addressing underlying weaknesses. A comprehensive training approach is required that integrates bracing with targeted strength, conditioning, and neuromuscular work is key to maximizing performance and reducing risk of injury.
  2. Improperly fitted braces may worsen existing injuries. Misused braces can cause injury where none existed before. Therefore, orthopedic physicians must ensure proper assessment, fitting, and education regarding brace usage for optimal outcomes.
  3. Certain sports may have restrictions or regulations regarding the use of braces in competition. Sport-specific guidelines must be considered, and collaboration is needed with athletes, coaches, and athletic trainers to proactively work within these guidelines.
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