When you have an acute or chronic knee injury, physical therapy can help you recover from or manage it. You also may need a simple — but effective — piece of medical equipment: a knee brace.
Knee braces can provide support and stability for your knee, whether you have an acute injury or chronic pain. They can help with many different types of injuries and help you manage your pain.
“A knee brace often is utilized to provide some sort of stability to the knee, and there are different indications for it,” says Ryan Nussbaum, DO, physiatrist and sports medicine physician, UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “It’s going to be specific to what their injury or pathology is.”
Braces come in all shapes and sizes and stabilize different parts of the knee, depending on your individual case. You may need to meet with an orthotist — a specialist who focuses on braces and other supportive devices — to find the right brace for you.
Learn more about knee braces and the type of injuries they can help to heal.
When to Wear a Knee Brace
Knee braces can help with acute injuries to your knee, as well as chronic conditions. Examples include:
- Ligament injuries.
- Meniscus injuries.
- Patellar (kneecap) injuries.
The knee brace you wear depends on the specific area of your knee that you injured.
You may need to wear a knee brace when recovering from an acute injury to your knee’s ligaments. Four common ligaments that may experience an injury include:
- Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
- Lateral collateral ligament (LCL).
- Medial collateral ligament (MCL).
- Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).
Common ligament injuries include sprains, partial tears, and complete tears. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may need surgery. But you may need to wear a knee brace as part of a nonsurgical treatment for a ligament injury. You may also need to wear one as part of recovery after surgery.
“When these ligaments are injured, oftentimes a brace is utilized to improve stability so that the ligament will not be further injured,” Dr. Nussbaum says.
For injuries to one of these four ligaments, a hinged brace that controls side-to-side movement may help. Additionally, a controlled range-of-motion brace may help to manage the flexion and extension of your knee.
You may need a knee brace for an injury to your meniscus, which is tissue that sits between your shinbone (tibia) and thighbone (femur). The meniscus is vulnerable to tears, which can cause pain and discomfort. A knee brace can help provide stability and reduce pain or discomfort whether you need surgery or not.
Knee braces can help you manage the pain and discomfort of osteoarthritis in your knee joint. They may help you stay active and perform both sports and everyday activities.
“If it’s in a particular location, more on the inside part of the knee, then it actually may be appropriate for utilizing a brace that essentially reduces the load on that inside part of the knee,” Dr. Nussbaum says. “By doing that, it would reduce their symptoms of pain potentially and allow them to have more function.”
Knee braces are often used for dislocation or subluxation of the patella, or kneecap. A lateral J brace can help stabilize the patella and keep it in place.
“The patella can dislocate or move to the side where it should not be,” Dr. Nussbaum says. “Sometimes, people will utilize a brace for that to keep the kneecap more stable and in place at the front of the knee.”
A lateral J brace also may help with patellofemoral pain syndrome, a common overuse injury known as “runner’s knee.”
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How Do I Get a Knee Brace?
If you have a knee injury or knee pain and want to know if a knee brace can help, Dr. Nussbaum recommends contacting a sports medicine physician. They can examine your knee and may order imaging tests to see the scope of your injury. From there, they can determine if a knee brace would help you.
If you do need a knee brace, you will often meet with an orthotist to determine the right brace for your injury. Your physician or physical therapist can refer you to an orthotist who can work with you to find the right fit.
In some cases, they may need to design a brace for you. Some orthotists work in the same clinical space, while others work at an outside facility.
“If we think a patient needs a particular brace, we’ll ask our orthotists to see this patient during the visit and discuss the bracing and the appropriateness of it,” Dr. Nussbaum says. “That’s proven to be very helpful.”
Knee braces and physical therapy
Knee braces are one potential part of recovery from a knee injury. So is physical therapy.
Physical therapists can help you learn how to navigate your injury with your knee brace. You can learn how to properly manage your knee brace, when you should wear it, and how much activity you can do with it. A physical therapist may also make recommendations about what kind of brace you may need, Dr. Nussbaum says.
“They have tremendous insight into the appropriateness of those devices,” he says.
For How Long Do I Need to Wear a Knee Brace?
Knee braces vary by person and by injury. For more minor injuries, you may find you can stop using a brace within a couple of weeks. Some athletes recovering from more major injuries — like an ACL tear — may continue to wear a brace even after returning to action. And for people with conditions that cause chronic pain (such as osteoarthritis), they may wear a brace anytime they do certain physical activities.
“With osteoarthritis, you tend to see people using it longer in their life and maybe using it for particular exercises where there’s more activity,” Dr. Nussbaum says. “So, they’ll stick with it if it’s working well.
“Conversely, [with] the soft tissue structures like the ligaments and the meniscus, the ultimate goal for those injuries is for the brace to be discontinued. But not all injuries are the same.”
Consulting with your doctors and physical therapy team about how long you should continue wearing a knee brace is important.
Can Knee Braces Prevent Injury?
Some athletes may continue to wear a knee brace even after returning to their sports to prevent reinjury. Other athletes — such as offensive and defensive linemen in football — have worn braces in an effort to prevent injury in the first place.
However, some data suggests that wearing a knee brace can prevent a first-time knee injury. With regard to preventing a reinjury to your knee, you should speak with your physician about whether a brace would reduce a repeated injury.
Our teams help everyone from elite athletes to weekend warriors to active individuals. Our physicians, physical therapists, and other specialists can help you determine if you need a knee brace and find the right one for you.
Bianca Marois, Xue Wei Tan, Thierry Pauyo, et al, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Can a Knee Brace Prevent ACL Reinjury: A Systematic Review. Link
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