Is there a simple way to treat knee pain? While knee pain can be complicated, there are ways to stabilize the knee while reducing pain that isn’t necessarily complicated. One of the emerging treatments for knee pain is knee bracing. Yes, simply applying a high-quality brace to your knee may help you to get relief. Bracing may also help with restoring range of motion following a knee injury. Take a look at the basics of knee bracing!

What Are Knee Braces?

Knee braces are supports that are worn over the knee. While we often think of them as being aids following injury, the truth is that many athletes and active people actually wear knee braces proactively to prevent injury. There are many different brace styles out there. Typically, knee braces are made from some combination of metal, plastic, foam, and elastic. Here’s a look at the common bracing styles:

  • Functional/Stabilizing Knee Braces: These are the knee braces that are commonly seen on athletes. They help to stabilize the knee following injury or weakness. Ideal for keeping a knee protected after it’s healed from an injury, these braces are thought to help to prevent future injuries.
  • Rehab Knee Braces: These are the braces worn immediately following an injury or surgical procedure. They are intended to provide stability and support while the knee heals. However, rehab braces do allow for some limited movement during the healing process.
  • Unloader/Pain Knee Braces: Designed to help people manage pain in the knee, “unloader” knee braces are commonly used by people with arthritis of the knees. They work by shifting weight from the damaged or weakened area of the knee to another area.
  • Prophylactic Braces: These braces act as preventative and protective gear. They are designed to buffer the knees from injury and pressure during contact sports.
  • Knee Sleeves: Growing in popularity, knee sleeves aren’t exactly the same as knee braces. They actually go beyond what braces do by providing compression at the knee joint. People who wear knee sleeves find that they help to provide support while keeping pain and swelling under control.

Once you decide that you’d like to use a knee brace, the next step is determining which type of knee brace is ideal. This can be hard to do without a true understanding of the nature, cause, and placement of your injury. Choosing the wrong brace can be ineffective for actually relieving pain or improving performance. What’s more, the wrong brace could potentially harm your knee by exacerbating an unhealed injury that is causing pain.

Best Practices When Using a Knee Brace

How do you properly use a knee brace? The answer depends on why you’re bracing up! Take a look at the tips for properly using knee braces:

  • 1. Trying to figure out how and when to use a knee brace on your own can be difficult. Ask a doctor for advice on finding an appropriate knee brace.
  • 2. Know when to wear your knee brace. While some braces are designed for constant wear, others should only be used when you’re performing certain activities.
  • 3. Check the placement of your brace periodically. A brace that has slipped from the proper position can do more harm than good.
  • 4. Care for your brace properly. A dirty brace can expose you to bacteria. Typically, soap and water can be used to clean knee braces as long as you cover any metal parts that could rust.
  • 5. Replace your brace when necessary. Regularly inspect your brace to assess its condition. If a brace seems worn or damaged, replace it to avoid causing injury to your knee.

Making the decision to brace means taking on the responsibility of bracing properly. Again, this isn’t something that the average person should expect to be able to do flawlessly. It’s very important to get the input of a professional to actually receive the intended benefits of bracing.

Should Knee Braces Feel Tight?

This is where getting a brace properly fitted by a musculoskeletal expert can make a world of difference. It’s very important to get the right fit to avoid injury when dealing with knee braces. The wide variety of brace styles out there can make the process of picking out the correct brace very difficult. The simple answer is that a knee brace should be tight. However, there’s a difference between tight and restrictive.

Compression is really the word you’re looking for when describing a proper brace fit. Compression means that there’s a subtle feeling of tightness around the knee. The benefit of compression is that it helps to prevent blockages of lymphatic fluid. Compression also helps to deliver healing, nutrient-rich blood to an injured knee to fuel cell and tissue regeneration.

There is a limit to how much compression you need before compression actually begins to harm the knee. It shouldn’t necessarily feel like your knee is being squeezed when you’re wearing a brace. A brace that is too tight can easily cut off circulation in your body. In the short term, that can mean pain, numbness, and swelling. Over time, poor circulation can actually make an injury worse.

The big takeaway is that you should definitely be aware of the knee brace’s presence. If you can’t feel the sensation of the knee brace, it probably won’t be effective. The other side of that is that a knee brace that is too tight will do much more harm than good. You’re really putting your health at risk by wearing a knee brace that is cutting off circulation. If you notice any deep lines or welts when you remove your brace, this is a telltale sign that you need to make an adjustment.

Are Knee Braces Actually Effective for Helping With Knee Pain?

The data on knee bracing is mixed. In some studies, prophylactic knee bracing significantly reduced MCL (medial collateral ligament) injuries. Other studies have been less conclusive about the role of bracing in regards to preventing injuries. However, research on how knee bracing helps to relieve pain, increase stability and create overall positive outcomes is much clearer. In a 2017 study looking at using soft bracing as an intervention for targeting knee issues, participants reported that wearing a knee brace significantly reduced pain levels during walking. Improvements were seen among people with self-reported knee instability, activity limitations, and pain. What’s more, participants who wore braces reported greater “knee confidence” when using bracing.

What Should I Do If I Think I Need a Knee Brace?

First, confirm that bracing is actually the best option based on your goals. It’s very important to speak with a professional specializing in knee injuries and musculoskeletal integrity before making the decision to brace. In some cases, there may actually be better options that don’t require you to purchase any type of supportive wearables. If bracing is the best option, a professional will be able to help you select the right brace, get the right fit, learn how to wear the brace correctly, and measure the benefits of using the brace over time.

If you’re specifically looking at knee braces because you have knee pain, simply slapping on a brace may not be enough to treat the issue. It’s important to focus on long-term healing by correcting the injury or imbalance that caused your knee pain. In some cases, combining bracing with therapeutic adjustments, exercises and therapies may produce even better results in a shorter amount of time. The bottom line is that just picking up a brace from the store may not be the breakthrough you’re hoping it will be if you’re trying to treat knee pain.