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When You Need a Knee Brace for Pain (and the 4 Types of Braces)

A knee brace is a device that is used to support the knee, reducing pain, preventing injury, and facilitating recovery following an injury. There are several different types of knee braces: motion control, knee immobilizer, and quite a few more. They are made of a variety of different materials and provide a variety of support levels.

You should work with your medical provider to determine when and if wearing a knee brace is appropriate based on the condition of your knee and leg. While it’s true that knee braces can help in a lot of situations, there are also some situations where using one actually causes more harm than good.

In this article, we’re going to go over four types of knee braces and also offer you some tips on using a knee brace.

4 Types of Knee Braces

If you are in an accident or you fall down, the structures in your knee may become damaged or dislocated. You may need to wear a knee brace as you heal. You may also injure your healthy knee joint during athletic activities. Then again, maybe you have an underlying condition that can increase your risk of sustaining a knee injury.

As mentioned, there are several different types of knee braces, and they all differ based on the level of support they provide and how they function. There are some that are designed to protect your knee from damage. Others are designed to support your knee and control pain. Some are designed to provide stability to your knee if you are at risk of injury and still others immobilize your knee after injury to promote healing.

As a general rule, you should choose your knee brace based on your personal situation and it should help to manage and disseminate the pressure around your knee.

Your knee joint is made up of bones, tendons, muscles, ligaments, and cartilage. It has a decent range of motion and supports a lot of weight. A knee brace is made to reduce motion so that it protects your knee to align with your needs when you’re wearing it.

Below, we’re going to explore 4 types of knee braces, explaining what they are and what situations they are most appropriate in.

Prophylactic

A prophylactic knee brace is a lot like a knee pad. It is designed to protect your knee if you’re in a situation with an increased risk of injury, such as a contact sport where your knee may be hit. You can use this type of knee brace even if you don’t have any issues and just want to prevent injury.

A prophylactic knee brace typically has padding, especially on the patellar bone. This protects your knee from injury due to direct impact.

Unloader

A knee unloader brace is designed to control pain associated with inflammatory conditions such as:

  • Tendonitis
  • Osteoarthritis in the knee
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome
  • Iliotibial band stress syndrome
  • Chondromalacia patellae

This type of knee brace is designed to reduce pain by shifting the pressure/weight on your knee joint. You will find that there are a few different kinds of unloader braces, including:

  • If you have patellar tendonitis, you can use a patellar motion control brace. This knee brace typically has a J-pad on the front to lift and support the patella.
  • If you have iliotibial band stress syndrome, you can relieve the pain with a small band around the lower part of your knee. This band compresses the iliotibial band where it goes into your shin, which decreases mechanical forces acting on it.

It’s important to know that an unloader knee brace is designed to improve comfort. They do not offer any protection against direct impact or overstretching. Make sure that you consult with your medical provider or a physical therapist to determine if an unloader brace is suited for your knee problems and which one would be best.

Functional

A functional knee brace is designed to provide stability for your knee joint. This type of brace can help you avoid sustaining a knee injury if you are at an increased risk due to a structural issue such as weak ligaments or a predisposition for dislocation of your knee.

There are a few different types of functional knee braces and, again, your knee problem and your anticipated activity determines which one is best for you.

Motion control brace: if the ligaments on the side of your knee have been overstretched or sprained, your medical provider is likely to recommend that you use a motion control brace. This type of brace is a neoprene sleeve with metal supports inside and out that offer support to the ligaments. It is typically used when engaging in activities that require repetitive bending of the knee, stops/starts, and/or pivoting.

Patella control brace: a patella control brace is used to mitigate motion of the patella if you have a dislocated patella, CMP, patellofemoral stress syndrome, or knee arthritis. It is a neoprene sleeve that is worn over the knee with a cutout that holds and supports the patella during activities such as squatting, walking, or running.

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Rehabilitative

A rehabilitative knee brace is used following surgery such as anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, repair or a meniscus repair. This will immobilize your joint so that it can heal. Your medical provider may have you wear a knee immobilizer or Bledsoe brace to begin with and once your knee has healed, you can wear a functional brace when engaging in athletic activity.

Knee Immobilizer: this type of brace is a long, cloth brace that runs between your shin and thigh. It has metal supports on the inside and outside of the brace. Self-fastening straps keep the knee held in place. The benefit of this type of brace versus a cast is that it can be removed to allow some motion during healing.

Bledsoe Brace: this type of brace features straps that wrap around your shin and thigh, along with metal support brackets on the inside and outside of your knee joint. There is a small mechanism that locks the knee into full extension where it is held for a period of time following surgery. As healing commences and movement can be tolerated, the locking mechanism can be loosened to allow some movement.

However, you should not make any changes to the locking mechanism on your Bledsoe brace on your own. You should consult with your medical provider or physical therapist before making changes. Additionally, make sure that you check with either of these professionals before you remove your knee immobilizer as well.

Best Practices for Using a Knee Brace

When it comes to getting the most from your knee brace, consistency can be an issue and studies show that approximately 25% of people who wear a knee brace for medical reasons have minor complications/issues with using it.

Some of the common reasons that people stop wearing their knee brace include the following:

  • Lack of relief
  • Skin irritation
  • Discomfort while wearing
  • Poor fit

By engaging in the following best practices, you may be able to avoid these issues.

Choose Your Brace Wisely

Wearing the right brace and getting a good fit are critical to making sure that you obtain the benefits you seek and that it is comfortable and effective. You can turn to your medical provider and/or physical therapist to determine the type of support you need and how it should be used. They will also be able to check the fit and decide if adjustments should be made or if you need a different size entirely.

Understand What You Should Expect

The best way to know if your knee brace is effective and to make sure you’re using it right is to understand what you should expect from it. You may find that several different knee braces appear to be the same- but function does not always correlate to appearance. Be sure to discuss your knee brace with your medical provider and/or physical therapist to help you understand what the purpose of your knee brace is.

Don’t Forget about Timing

Another factor that can be helpful is wearing your brace when it’s most likely to help- not just when you feel like you need it. You may only need to wear your brace for certain activities, or you may need to wear it all day. Problems can occur if you wear it too much just as much as if you don’t wear it enough.

For instance, if you wear it for prolonged periods of time, it can cause skin abrasion. Also, if you allow it to limit your physical activity for a long time, it can cause muscle atrophy or joint stiffness.

That being said, if you remove the knee brace before your knee joint is ready, it can hamper the healing process. Not wearing it when you are at increased risk of injury could result in knee damage. Therefore, it’s important to have a conversation with your medical provider about what activities you should be wearing your knee brace for:

  • Sitting
  • Walking
  • Stretching
  • Driving
  • Sleeping

When is a Knee Brace Not Appropriate?

Of course, it is important to note that a knee brace is not always the most appropriate solution. There are some medical conditions that can increase your risk of adverse effects associated with wearing a knee brace. In some cases, a knee brace will be ineffective.

For example, if you have severe leg pain or reduced sensation because of conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, a knee brace may not be the best solution for you. This is because you may not notice pressure or a small cut from your brace and the wound can worsen before you realize it.

Another condition that makes wearing a knee brace problematic is vascular insufficiency. You may have reduced blood flow while wearing the brace, which could result in lingering vascular issues.

Finally, it’s important to be careful if you have congenital bone malformations or other bone deformities. The shape/structure of the knee brace may cause joint damage if your knee is structured atypically.

Conclusion

A knee brace can provide protection from injury as well as relieve discomfort in a variety of situations. It is very important that you use the brace properly and maintain communication with your medical provider and/or physical therapist about your evolving needs so that you can get the most from wearing your knee brace.

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