Which knee brace should you buy? And are there some you should avoid? Jim Newman explains.
I’ve just typed ‘knee brace’ into Google. It has presented me with the first of 34.5 million results. Amazon alone has 605 of them, including some flagged as ‘Amazon’s choice’ because clearly Amazon is a medical expert now.
And that really is the crux of the problem with knee braces. Some braces have real value in specific circumstances. Some do not. But how are you supposed to know which is which? After all, a ‘compression sleeve with patella gel pad’ marketed as being ideal for ‘joint pain, ligament damage, meniscal tears, ACLs, MCLs, tendinitis and more’ sounds like it should do the job. But in truth, any brace that claims to work wonders with all of those injuries is probably not going to help a great deal with any of them. It could even make things worse.
Knee braces that work
Some specialist knee braces can be extremely useful in certain circumstances. If you tear your MCL or PCL (the medial and posterior cruciate ligaments), wearing a brace designed for those specific injuries could help the ligament heal in the correct position and help you avoid surgery.
There’s another type of specialist brace – an offloader brace – which can be extremely effective for people who have uni-compartmental arthritis, that is, arthritis in one compartment of the knee. A partial knee replacement may be one way to resolve this, and it could do it extremely successfully. But if you’re young and don’t want surgery, or if you’re on a lengthy waiting list and want to reduce the risk of things worsening, this spring-loaded brace can help ‘push’ the knee away from the location of the arthritis, transferring your weight to the opposite side of the knee and reducing symptoms.
Offloader braces can also be useful when considering a realignment operation (an osteotomy). If the brace works, you can be confident that the osteotomy will have a similar successful effect.
In all of these cases, however, you’d only buy a specialist brace once your diagnosis had been confirmed and, to make sure you bought the right one, you’d usually only do it in consultation with your physiotherapist or knee consultant.
Knee braces that can be helpful
One of the most common reasons a patient will wear a knee brace is because they’ve injured the knee previously and don’t want their next skiing trip/triathlon/netball match to open up old tears.
In truth, this is more about reassurance and personal preference. There’s little evidence a knee brace would stop another knee injury. It could even give you a false sense of confidence that means you demand more of your knee than it can really cope with. It may, however, help with things like feedback from the knee and, if you feel the brace benefits you and you don’t push things too far, there’s no issue with wearing a brace in such circumstances.
Knee braces that don’t work
The generalist knee brace of the sort I mentioned earlier is likely to be far less effective. It could even be counterproductive.
If you have osteoarthritis, for example, a generalist brace is likely to do little more than keep your knee warm. Worse, it may encourage muscle loss as your knee starts relying on the brace for support rather than its own muscles. That can hasten the symptoms of your arthritis.
For osteoarthritis, the best brace is often your muscles, and your better option will be to try and build them up.
The problem with most generalist braces that you’ll find online is that it’s never entirely clear what they are aiming to achieve. So before you wear one, get a proper diagnosis, then ask whether a specific knee brace could benefit you.
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