When we’re young, a skinned knee seems to be the height of injury. But as we get older, knees can be tricky joints. And knee braces might be able to help. Some evidence suggests that knee braces help to stabilize your knees and support your ligaments by controlling your body’s movements. If you experience knee pain from an acute injury or a chronic condition such as osteoarthritis, a knee brace may help to reduce pain or prevent your likelihood of re-injury.
“Kids, adults, athletes and the older population can benefit from them,” says Karla Leong, a CATA-certified athletic therapist at the Vaughan Sports Medicine Institute. “A knee brace might be able to get you through whatever activity you have to do, whether it’s work or a daily chore or sport.”
The kind of brace you’ll need will depend on the type and severity of your condition or injury. To start, get to know these common knee braces, and when to use them.
Compression Sleeve: This is the most basic kind of knee support. Compression sleeves provide very little structural stability for the knee, but due to the compression around the joint, may reduce pain and swelling. As such, sleeves are best suited for mild injuries. Since they control swelling, compression sleeves may also be useful for pain relief in people with mild cases of arthritis. These products do not require a custom fit and can be purchased at drug stores and sporting goods retailers.
Hinge Brace: Hinge braces employ rigid bars on the inside or the outside of the knee to keep joints in one plane of movement. They’re typically used by those recovering from trauma such as ligament sprains. Some may include locking mechanisms, which are intended to prevent the knee from moving into an extreme position—say, bending or straightening too far. While hinge braces can be purchased over the counter, it is best to consult a trained medical professional for a custom design and fit to ensure you’re getting adequate support.
Wraparound Brace: These braces provide stabilization, most often for the patella (or knee cap) —that is, they keep it from sliding or gliding excessively. They provide support using compression, and, often, hinges. Typically, wraparounds are used during a recovery from a subluxation or dislocation of the patella. They can be purchased over the counter, or custom designed for more severe injuries.
Unloader Brace: These custom-designed braces employ gentle forces on specific areas around the knee to reduce excess stress from the knee joints. They can offer stability and pain relief for seniors with advanced cases of osteoarthritis. For some people, use of an unloader brace can help to delay the need for knee replacement surgery. There are several types of unloader braces available, so a trained medical professional should be consulted to find the best fit. While these custom braces can be expensive, they may be covered or partially covered by some medical insurance plans.
Although knee braces can help to relieve pain and prevent further injury, it’s important to remember that they can’t replace other important aspects during recovery such as injury rehabilitation exercises, modalities, manual therapy, and a home exercise program. “Wearing a brace doesn’t outweigh the benefits of actual treatment,” says Leong. “It’s more of an adjunct on top of therapy.”
Those who have suffered injuries such as severe ligament sprains or muscle strains, and patellar dislocations/subluxations should still exercise caution, even while using a brace, Leong adds. “A brace might decrease the severity of the re-injury or injury,” she says, “but it doesn’t decrease the incidence.”
CAT(C), R. Kin, CSCS, BAHSc(AT), BA Hons(Kin)
Specializing in musculoskeletal injuries and orthopedic conditions, Karla is certified through the Canadian Athletic Therapists Association and The National Strength & Conditioning Association. She treats a diverse clientele ranging from office workers to high performance athletes.