Image is everything in sport these days, like it or loathe it. And Aircast boots aren’t exactly en vogue. Unless you are David Beckham, who has become synonymous with the “Beckham Boot”, there aren’t many that can pull off the grey, dull, clunky boot look well.
This is becoming a problem, as perception of the walking boot amongst athletes, coaches and even other medical staff (unfortunately) is that the provision of a boot must equal a severe injury. Wearing one is a badge that not many people want. This worries me for a number of reasons…
Do no harm:
Whether you use POLICE or PRICE, our first thought in acute injury management is “Protect”. I’ve written about acute assessment before (here) but if you have just witnessed the injury and don’t have any immediate concerns about preservation of life or limb, then often we don’t want to rush into a diagnosis. Things can always look worse immediately after injury, so our plan is to offload, reduce risk of secondary injury or worsening of the initial injury (AKA.. “Protect”).
So, with lower limb injuries around the foot and ankle, quite often we will provide a walking boot. Cue the groans.. “I can’t be seen in this”, “Its not that bad”, “Don’t let the coach see me wearing one”.
But here are our options; walking boot, below knee cast, tubular bandage… or nothing.
If we are talking about doing no harm, then evidence suggests that long term immobilisation (greater than 4-6 weeks) of acute ankle sprains is detrimental when compared to “functional treatment” (to avoid an argument of what is functional, lets just call this “Optimal Load” and leave it to clinical discretion) (Here). But also no intervention could be seen as negligent. If we have enough suspicion to be weighing up “should I offload this?” then when compared to a control (wearing a normal shoe), a walking boot limits sagittal plane range around the ankle to around 4 degrees and reduces body weight in peak plantar plane surface forces (154% vs 195% BW) (Here). So if we face an option of boot vs no boot, where we know we can limit range and peak forces in an acute injury, the answer is “yes, offload it” even for a day until you can re-assess. Why wouldn’t you?
A brief period of immobilisation, “around 10 days in a below knee cast or removable boot”, along with treatment to reduce pain and inflammation is recommended (Here). In a study of fifth metatarsal fractures, those that we provided with a walking boot had better outcomes of pain and return to activity vs those immobilised in a cast (Here). This is an advantage of the boot. We can protect the foot and ankle in a boot but remove it to utilise other treatments and rehab. We can keep unaffected joints mobile – perhaps another blog but I like to use ankle injuries as an opportunity to work on detailed foot control, like great toe flexion, abduction, tibialis posterior control and so on. We can do all of this whilst limiting inversion and staying in plantar-grade if necessary. Or if its a 5th metatarsal stress, we can keep the ankle mobile. You get the point, we couldn’t do that in a cast.
Our other option was tubular bandage. In a world where we can download apps to make us look like cartoon dogs for free, we still have plain grey boots and boring beige tubigrips, I say this as an academy physio trying to make acute injury management appealing to young kids. When compared to those provided with a below knee cast & removable boot, severe ankle sprains had better clinical ankle function measures, quality of life, levels of pain and levels of activity at 3 months vs those provided with a tubigrip (Here). Perhaps a little bit unfair on the tubigrip, whose role in dealing with a severe ankle sprain is “compression” – a bit like saying an elastic band is worthless because its unable to hold sand together. But ultimately, in an acute injury, tubular bandage isn’t going to provide much protection at all.
Long term use:
Now the point of this blog is to de-sensitise reactions to using a boot for the short term, but it would be remiss not to mention their use in long term injuries. Following surgery or a fracture, the use of a walking boot is associated with a quicker return to normal gait and function (Here).
But does it come at a cost? Fixing the foot and ankle is obviously not conducive to “normal” walking, so it will change gait temporarily. In doing so, it can also create problems elsewhere. 84% of people using a boot developed or increased a secondary site of pain in the first two weeks of using the boot (Here). Now, 68% of those reported this pain made no difference to their life, but if you have someone with existing problems, especially in the low back, you might want to consider this stat as part of your clinical reasoning. Remember, part of our job is to prevent secondary injury.
If the boot fits..
There’s one option and aid we haven’t talked about and thats crutches. The reason I haven’t mentioned them is they come with the same stigma as a boot. They are obvious, they demonstrate you are “injured” so if someone doesn’t want to wear a boot, they probably aren’t going to want crutches either. But hopefully this brief blog gives you a bit more of an argument behind your reasoning to help reduce the association that wearing a boot equals a severe injury. So when we hear that a player has left the stadium in a boot, for the first couple of days, so what? It might be nothing. Something I have trialled before in a key first team player, which I admit is divisive, is to manage an athlete across 24 hours. So.. There are some injuries that can continue to train, like an inflamed sesamoid or plantar-fascia pain, but to give them the best chance of training and competing it would help to offload the structures through the rest of the day. So, instead of trying to control 1-2 hours of the day and reduce training / matches, why not try a boot to offload for the other 22 hours in a day? As the evidence above suggests, this is certainly not a long term solution. But across a couple of days, maybe? Limited evidence, but its worked twice for me.
The key to this working, was education. Ensuring that other players and staff understood that the boot didn’t mean a serious injury. But was an adjunct to help offload… or “protect”. There’s a theme here.
This is the message we need to get across, protecting an acute injury is not the same as us diagnosing or offering a prognosis. “You might only be in the boot overnight, but its a safe way of transporting you home.” We just need to help give them some good PR and make them seem less daunting, less serious…
Yours in sport