If you’re heading for the ski slopes imminently, knee braces may be one of the first items in your suitcase. But is there any real benefit to wearing them? Yorkshire Knee Clinic’s Nick London (no stranger to his own ski slope knee injuries) investigates.
If you’re planning on following the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, you’ll see plenty of coverage of winter sports athletes who have fought to overcome injury in time to compete for medals. A quick flick through articles involving downhill skiers, slalom specialists and snowboarders reveals that a number of athletes rely on knee braces. But what sort of protection does a knee brace actually offer? And is the position the same for recreational rather than high performance skiers?
The general position is this: there is little good evidence to support the use of functional knee braces as a way of avoiding injury. Surgical braces are different – we often use them during treatment to support some ligament injuries, especially medial cruciate ligament injuries. But if you’re wearing a knee brace to protect against (repeat) injury or improve knee resilience whilst you’re on the slopes the evidence really doesn’t support you (much like the brace).
Strictly speaking, if the reason an athlete pulls on a knee brace is to protect against an injury from which they’ve not yet fully recovered, there’s a strong argument to say they shouldn’t be out on the slopes at all. Certainly, wearing a knee brace is unlikely to prevent further damage to the knee. Yet professional sports people have always pushed the limits of their recovery, and not just in skiing.
All in the mind?
Yet whilst knee braces may not prevent injury or aid recovery, there is one area where they can prove of benefit, and that is in winning the psychological battle. As we explore in this post, the fight to return to the competitive pitch, track or slope isn’t only won within the knee joint. It’s won in the mind.
Overcoming the mental impact of a severe injury such as cruciate ligament damage can be difficult. Throughout recovery, there are numerous moments when testing the stability of the knee is likely to cause a wobble – and not just in the physical sense.
Here, a knee brace may have some benefit, as a reminder to take it easy, and as a confidence builder to help make the return to normal activities easier.
The recreational skier
The same is true for the occasional skier. The knee surgeons at Yorkshire Knee Clinic wouldn’t recommend any knee brace as a protection against physical harm or as a recovery aid (although they can be a vital aid in the treatment phase), but if you prefer to wear one – for reassurance or as a reminder that you’re recovering from injury – it is unlikely to do any harm providing is doesn’t limit your movement. Remember though, that no brace is a substitute for the sort of muscle strength and control you only develop from working with a specialist physiotherapist.
If you do choose to wear a knee brace, many skiers report that a simple pull-on knee sleeve offers as much reassurance as an expensive knee brace. Custom-fitted functional knee braces will fit far better than an ‘off the shelf’ type but are much more expensive.
‘Shock-absorber’ or ‘power-assisted’ braces
In recent years, knee brace systems have appeared which support skiers who have relatively weak quadriceps muscles, who tire quickly and therefore struggle to enjoy a full day’s skiing. Systems such as Ski Mojo and Againer-ski promise to “maximise skiing” by helping the skier to straighten the legs via spring or pneumatic assistance.
So, are they effective post-knee injury?
In truth, it’s just too early to recommend these for general use, especially as their safety has not been fully clarified. They may allow some people who are unable to build full strength in their leg muscles to enjoy their skiing, although our knee consultants would not currently recommend them as a way of returning to skiing prematurely following knee ligament surgery as there is little evidence they would reduce the risk of re-injury.
If you’ve injured your knee skiing, or if you’d like expert support in returning safely to the slopes, talk to the knee consultants at Yorkshire Knee Clinic. Contact us now.