Just as there are a variety of knee injuries and issues, there are multiple brace types to heal, prevent and manage the pain these conditions cause. Knowing which type of knee brace is right for your needs is the first step. As with any medical decision, it’s best to consult your health care provider before using a knee brace.
Functional Knee Braces
Originally made for athletes recovering from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, functional knee braces are used for stability. They are widely used among a range of individuals as a form of support and are typically worn following an ACL surgery. As the name suggests, functional knee braces are effective in returning users to functional activity after a ligament injury.
While functional knee braces can be made custom, there is little evidence that custom braces offer additional advantages compared to pre-sized braces available in stores. Whether you’re considering a custom or in-store functional knee brace, consult your doctor about the most accurate brace size for you, as it will impact the amount of support the brace provides.
Rehabilitative Knee Braces
Also known as functional rehabilitative knee braces, rehabilitative knee braces are braces that protect and support an injured or surgically repaired knee joint. Similar to functional knee braces, rehabilitative braces assist in healing the knee and allow patients to gain mobility while reducing pain. Rehabilitative braces boast fast and long-lasting results in terms of improved muscle strength and reduced pain for patients with osteoarthritis.
Unloader knee braces help distribute and “unload” weight from the knee joint. These braces are typically used for people suffering from osteoarthritis, a common knee condition in seniors. Unloader braces are often prescribed by doctors to help patients with osteoarthritis with knee pain and alignment while awaiting knee surgery or as a more cost-effective alternative to surgery in some less severe cases.
One study found patients who were able to tolerate wearing an unloader brace for two years decreased their chances of surgery, and any patient who continued brace use longer than two years didn’t have to undergo surgery.
Unloader braces can be used on patients with arthritis in a particular side of the knee, says Daphne Scott, M.D., assistant attending physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in the department of primary sports medicine in New York City and a Forbes Health 2022 Advisory Board member. The unloader brace puts pressure on the opposite side and opens space, she explains. Unloader braces are one of the types of braces she uses most with patients. She doesn’t, however, recommend anyone put themselves in an unloader brace without first consulting their doctor.
“If someone has a big knee injury, it’s swollen, they’re limping or they can’t handle weight bearing, they absolutely need to be evaluated by a doctor,” she says.
Prophylactic Knee Braces
Prophylactic knee braces are designed to protect knees from ligament damage. Often used as a preventative measure, prophylactic knee brace benefits require further research, as they have mixed reviews from health professionals.
The braces can reduce the frequency and severity of medial collateral ligament (MCL) injuries, but they also risk giving users an overly confident sense of protection, particularly for a knee that suffered previous injury.
“Knee injury is going to be hard to stop,” says Dr. Scott. “If you’re going to have a knee injury, a knee brace is not to stop that. Unless someone knows something is going on with their knee, a knee brace won’t be very helpful.
Prophylactic knee braces are typically recommended for athletes like football players and aren’t intended for daily use.
Knee sleeves are thinner, less structured braces used to reduce knee pain and improve chronic knee conditions. Typically made completely of fabric—often elastic or neoprene materials—knee sleeves can help improve knee pain and functionality in patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis.
“Most people find some form of relief from those [knee sleeves] because they provide compression and sometimes a little warmth to the knee,” says Dr. Scott. “For people with arthritis, that can help with pain.”
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Injury and Need
Knee injuries can appear in many forms and require different treatments. Identifying your specific knee injury and need will ensure you find the proper knee brace for successful pain relief and recovery. Common knee injuries and issues that require braces include (but aren’t limited to):
Speak to your health care provider to diagnose your knee pain properly and discuss proper knee brace and treatment options.
Size and Fit
Fit is one of the most important factors when it comes to finding the right knee brace, says Dr. Scott. “If you have a knee brace that doesn’t fit, you’re not going to use it, which defeats the purpose,” she says. She recommends going to a specialty brace orthosis provider or a medical supply store where specialists can assist you with finding the right size brace. While off-the-shelf braces come in different sizes, purchasing a brace through a drugstore won’t allow you to try it on in the store. Meanwhile, working with a brace specialist ensures a perfect fit.
“What I look for is that the client and physician have had conversations and decisions about the clients best approach to healing and care,” says Sabrena Jo, senior director of science and research at the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and a Forbes Health 2022 Advisory Board member. “The brace has to be comfortable so that the person is going to actually wear it,” she says.
Dr. Scott adds that multiple types of braces may serve the same purpose. She recommends trying two or three braces to see which one feels best. “It’s almost like buying a car,” she says. “You don’t want to just pick one and walk out with it.”
Material and Comfort
For seniors especially, finding a brace with comfortable materials is essential, due to thinning and sensitive skin. “As we age, our skin gets thinner,” says Dr. Scott. “A poor-fitting brace, or one that’s rough and has a roughened edge, can cause skin breakdown.” Brace material shouldn’t be traumatizing to the skin, and people who have fabric allergies should be aware of material components to avoid allergic reactions, she adds.
Knee braces come in many styles, the most common being hinged braces, compression sleeves, wraparound braces and straps or bands.
Hinged braces typically feature metal on both sides with a hinge in between, says Dr. Scott, and they’re available in soft and rigid forms, depending on the amount of support needed. These braces are most often seen on post-surgical patients or patients suffering from arthritis, she says. Dr. Scott recommends working with your health care provider to decide if a hinged brace is the right treatment for you.
Meanwhile, wraparound braces are typically used for patellar stabilization (keeping the kneecap in place), and compression sleeves provide compression to the knee and can sometimes provide pain relief, says Dr. Scott. Knee straps or bands are smaller than traditional knee braces and are worn around the bottom of the knee. They’re most commonly used to provide stress and pain relief in the knee.
Some knee braces also offer design features, such as open popliteal, meaning there’s a round opening on the back of the knee, or open patella, which indicates a round opening over the kneecap. Both of these features typically allow for heat reduction and reduced irritation to the skin on the knee. However, a 2017 study comparing open and closed patella braces on 108 patients with knee osteoarthritis found knee braces with no opening over the kneecap gave better results in pain reduction, function and walking speed compared to braces with patellar openings.
When searching for the right knee brace, having a brace that’s lightweight can impact its effectiveness. “You can walk out of a physician’s office with orders, but if it’s super uncomfortable and cumbersome, a client might ignore the doctor’s recommendations and discontinue use prematurely,” says Jo.
When treating a knee injury or rehabilitation of a prior injury with a brace, Jo recommends users take lifestyle and mobility into consideration.
“Does it disrupt apparel they’re trying to wear? Does it disrupt movement so they can’t be present [with their families]? Those types of things should be continually considered so an ongoing conversation can be had between the client and the client’s physician,” she says.
“The reason for a brace is to limit mobility so the soft tissues and bone have a chance to heal,” adds Jo. Having a knee brace that supports the knee in this way but still allows for healthy movement is key.
Jo recommends being mindful of movements that support and strengthen the muscles around the affected joints while wearing a brace. “[The] purpose of the brace in general, is to support and stabilize affected muscles,” she says. “Having a support or a brace will do its job to stabilize the affected area, but it won’t do anything to strengthen those muscles or the joint.”
Most braces are intended to be worn during activity, with the exception of severe injury cases, such as a broken kneecap, says Dr. Scott.
Knee braces are covered by Medicare for people who need an off-the-shelf brace, but users must purchase the brace through an approved contract supplier in order to have Medicare cover the cost.
“Medicare will only cover one brace for a particular [body] part once every two to three years,” adds Dr. Scott. “They [patients] have to be pretty careful if they’re getting a brace through their insurance,” she says. “They may end up with a brace that’s not very helpful and have to pay cash for another.”
In addition to open and closed popliteal and patella options, some knee braces come with features like cooling packs, heat therapy or vibration technology for additional pain relief. If you’re considering any of these special features in a knee brace, speak with your health care provider to ensure they will benefit your condition.