For older adults, staying mobile is key when it comes to longevity and overall health. Foot pain, injury, or chronic foot and ankle conditions not only impair mobility but make it hard to keep up with the exercise routines and sports you love.
From ankle sprains to bunions, Achilles tendinitis, and hammer toes, a wide range of foot ailments might have you wincing and howling each time you try and hit the golf course or go dancing with your spouse. Are braces a non-pharmacological solution to your pain and discomfort? We’re running down the what, why, and how of foot and ankle braces:
What do braces do
The body is an incredible self-healing machine, but every now and then it needs a little help, especially with an injury or chronic condition. Braces, from ankle wraps to the best thumb spica splint, aid the body by boosting blood circulation, correcting poor body mechanics, and stabilising an injured limb or joint. Braces specifically help:
- Reduce stress on internal joints and muscles
- Support and align an injured or weakened body part
- Promote good posture and proper pronation
- Add compression to swollen joints, tendons, and ligaments
- Reduce inflammation and swelling
- Immobilise a body part or limit motion
What types of foot braces help seniors stay active
Depending on the condition being addressed, your foot brace will vary – by material, structure, wear time, and level of activity you are aiming for. Some of the most common foot braces include:
- Bunion splint: Bunions, a bone deformity on the joint at the big toe, can cause pain and stiffness, even resulting in impaired mobility and surgery. A bunion splint can be made of a hard or soft material and serves to create a barrier between the bunion and the surface of your shoe, minimizing friction and reducing swelling.
- Plantar fasciitis sleeve or day splint: The plantar fascia ligament which runs across the bottom of the foot can become inflamed and painful with overuse and improper pronation (unstable gait due to low or high arch). A plantar fasciitis sleeve slides on like a sock, supports a corrected arch and increases circulation, helping reduce swelling and aid healing.
- Foot stabiliser: Targeted towards mid-foot support, a foot stabiliser supports the natural articulation of the foot to correct over or underpronation. The compression of a light, flexible brace like this can treat pain associated with Achilles tendinitis, stress fractures, sprains, and more.
- Ankle brace: Typically composed of dual-tension elastic, ankle braces often wrap around the ankle in a figure 8 pattern, offering compression of stiff, swollen, and painful ankles and arches. They can also make you more “foot aware” so as to prevent movements or actions that might exacerbate an existing issue.
- Active ankle support: Featuring a metal hinge and sturdy frame, an active ankle support is not pliable and flexible like an ankle wrap, but anatomically designed to move with the motion of your ankle. Active ankle supports provide sturdier, long-term solutions for stabilizing the ankle.
- Compression foot sleeves: Dealing with pain from heel spurs or ankle inflammation? A very basic lightweight compression sleeve that is slid up over the foot and ankle can provide compression and joint stability for someone suffering from arthritis, plantar fasciitis, or painful arches.
- Hammer toe cushion or toe brace: Hammer toes, caused by the abnormal bend of one or more of your toes, or overlapping toes can be especially frustrating for sports enthusiasts and athletes. Almost invisible toe braces and cushions slip on over your toes to help correct misalignment and prevent rubbing.
What should I know about wearing a brace
While wraps and braces should provide some compression support, it is possible for them to be worn too tightly. If a brace or bandage is wrapped too tightly, you may experience more pain, skin irritation, numbness, tingling, coolness, or a swelling of the area below the bandage.
Many braces can be worn in athletic shoes and during periods of physical activity. Talk with your doctor about your goals for activity, i.e. playing tennis three times a week, and what type of brace (if any) would be suitable to support and protect your feet and ankles.
Because of constant skin contact, and especially if worn while playing sports, a beneficial foot brace will offer some breathability in its material and potentially even antimicrobial, antifungal, and non-allergenic makeup, helping fight off odor and infection caused by bacteria.
Read the instructions on your brace regarding care. Oftentimes, lightly hand washing with warm water and soap and letting air dry will do the trick for keep your brace clean and smelling good.
Can an ankle or foot brace really prevent injury?
Survey says . . . maybe. Scientific studies flip flop on the issue of the efficacy of prophylactic braces for preventing injury. For example, a 2016 study revealed that preventative ankle supports could indeed limit excessive joint motion while supporting normal ankle stability when landing on both feet. The same year, however, a literature review found that ankle braces actually predispose some athletes to injury.
Moving forward, a 2017 study looking at pain relief and gait patterns for patients with joint disease found that ankle supports did in fact help relieve pain but did not alter gait patterns.
If you’re looking for a hard and fast answer on whether an ankle brace will prevent you from spraining your ankle that next time you play baseball with your rec league, it is simply hard to say. Experts do recommend supporting previously injured ankles and feet with braces and orthotics as the joints and tendons may be weakened and more likely to strain.
If a brace is too bulky or simply doesn’t offer the support you are looking for, other assistive aids like orthotic inserts, bandage wraps, or kinesio tape be the solution you are looking for. A brace should never be the answer to treating an injury without seeing a doctor or sports medicine specialist first. Even a seemingly harmless roll of the ankle while exercising could lead to unintended joint swelling and pain.
For older adults more susceptible to bone loss, arthritis, and muscle weakness, acute attention and self-care of your lower extremities could literally keep you on your feet for years to come.