Knee Bracing

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When your knee hurts so much that you struggle to walk and perform daily tasks, your whole life changes. As the pain and the reduced mobility and freedom persists, your start adjusting your entire life.

You start saying ‘no’ to invitations to do active things like hiking, casual sports games, biking, and even just going to the park for a walk. Your struggle to clean the house, go up and down the stairs, lift things, and do gardening. If you have kids, you can’t do all the same things you used to do with them.

Knee bracing is not a cure-all for most knee problems.

But when used in coordination with physiotherapy, exercises, rest, ice, heat, and other treatments, knee bracing plays a powerful role in preventing re-injury to your knee, and allows it to more quickly heal and build up strength so you can resume your normal life activities sooner and more freely.

Just about everything you need to know about knee braces can be found in this article. And what can’t be found here, you will be given additional resources to further explore the areas where you still have questions.

For example – do you need a knee brace, or will simple rest do the trick? What are the best knee braces? Are all types of knee braces designed for the same purpose or does it depend your condition and prior injuries? How do I know which one to pick?

Use the quick links below or just keep reading and get all your initial questions about knee bracing answered.

The Ultimate Guide to Knee Bracing

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The Ultimate Guide to Knee Bracing

What Is Knee Bracing?

Knee braces provide a way to support the joints, muscles and ligaments in your knee to help you manage chronic conditions, or heal from injury while reducing the chances of hurting your knee again, and allowing you to remain mobile while you rehabilitate. 

You’re measuring your knee’s health based on three characteristics:

  1. Support for the rest of your body
  2. Strength to perform life’s activities
  3. Functionality

Knee bracing provides the support while your strength and functionality return. Bracing offloads some of the pressure within your knee, and helps absorb some of the forces that come against it. Knees do a lot of twisting, bending, and moving side to side and front to back. A knee brace reduces excess movement to reduce pain and promote proper healing.

You can wear knee braces after an injury, before or after surgery, or when you have deterioration in your joints and ligaments due to overuse, age, or chronic conditions.

Knee braces can be custom-designed to fit your knees, or bought in pre-packaged sizes and designs for certain conditions. We’ll get to the details of all this later. The main thing to know up front is, it is much easier get the best knee brace for your situation if you get help from a physical therapist who specializes in knee injury and rehabilitation. There are a TON of choices, and they are not all the same.

You can find a knee brace for arthritis, a knee brace for ACL tears, a knee brace for MCL tears, a knee brace for sports like basketball, motocross, a knee brace for skiing, and knee braces for many other purposes.

Some causes of knee pain include:

  • Torn ligaments like the ACL, PCL, MCL, and LCL
  • Torn cartilage, also know as a meniscus tear
  • Sprains, strains, and dislocations
  • Bursitis, tendonitis, arthritis
  • Runner’s knee, jumper’s knee
  • Osgood Schlatter disease
  • Chondromalacia

Knee braces are made of a variety of materials, such as neoprene, lycra, and polyester, as well as stiffer materials like plastic, metal or even carbon fibre in parts.

Common Examples of Brace Use of courtesy of PhysioPlus Health Group (Read the caption):

How Does Knee Bracing Help with Knee Pain?

For such a relatively small part, the knee joint is a complex mechanism.

It contains bones – the femur, tibia, and patella, which is the kneecap. It connects with muscles and tendons – including the quadriceps, hamstrings, and patellar tendon. There is also fibrocartilage structures, known as the medial and lateral meniscus, which protects the joint from pressure and allows for smooth movement. And, there are four ligaments that stabilize the joint and promote proper function and stability.

Watch this demo of Hamstring Exercise courtesy of Strive Health and Performance

If you follow sports, you’ve heard of these when athletes suffer knee injuries. These include the medial collateral ligament (MCL), the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the lateral collateral ligament (LCL), and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).

As you can imagine, with so many important parts, knee problems can arise in all kinds of ways.

A knee brace helps reduce pain by providing additional support and stability. Certain knee braces are designed to restrict movement so proper functionality is prioritized, preventing wobbling. Other braces provide increased compression to reduce swelling, such as after surgery or an injury.

Knee injury courtesy of Delta Physiotherapy & Rehab (Read the caption)

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9 Types of Knee Braces

9 types of knee braces

The most common knee injuries and conditions where a knee brace would be needed are ACL tears, meniscus tears, patellar dislocations, and chronic arthritis of the knee. 

In general, you’re going to find about 9 different types of knee braces. Let’s look at the main types of knee braces and the conditions they are best designed for.

Hinged Knee Braces

A hinged brace works well if you need increased stability to the knee. It is a good knee brace for sports or activities with frequent changes in direction.

The hinge helps reduce pain and provides support for wobbly knees. Hinged knee braces typically have one or two bars with hinges along both sides of the knee, with Velcro straps to hold it in place. It may be a completely rigid carbon-fibre brace or a neoprene sleeve with hinges.

The exact type needed depends on the injury and level of support needed. This will be assessed by a medical doctor or your physiotherapist. 

Unloading Knee Braces

An unloading knee brace is a good choice if you’re looking for a knee brace for arthritis. Also known as an off-loader, this knee brace shifts, or unloads, the weight from the more damaged parts of your knee joint and reduces the bone on bone pressure that is typical of osteoarthritis.

With an unloading knee brace, you may be able to maintain a more active lifestyle, keep working at your job, and perform daily tasks. Again – this will not cure arthritis in the knee. No knee brace can do that. But it can alleviate some of the pain and allow you more freedom and maintain mobility and strength. 

Compression Knee Sleeves

For people dealing with swelling in their knees or just need a “little bit of support”, a compression knee sleeve may be the best option. 

A knee sleeve is usually made of neoprene or some other soft elastic fabric, and slides up over the knee, sometimes with extra padding on the kneecap. 

Different varieties may have openings in the front or in the back, and some have straps as well. But the idea is to provide warmth, compression, and increased knee support, and to reduce swelling.
Patellar Tracking Orthosis Brace

Also known as a PTO, this is a special kind of knee sleeve that limits the movement of the kneecap (the patella), and protects it from possible dislocation or subluxation. For this reason, it is also known as a patella stabilizing knee brace. Some PTO knee braces include hinges for additional knee support.

Here are some of the benefits of Custom Bracing (Read the caption) of courtesy of ADM Ottawa Physiotherapy:

Patellar Tendon Straps

For anterior knee pain, patellar straps apply pressure to the patellar tendon down the front of the knee and relieve stress on where it attaches to the tibia bone. This particular knee brace has also been found to relieve pain from patellar tendonitis and Osgood-Schlatter disease.

Knee Pads

These can include a knee sleeve as well, but many knee pads are not so much meant to protect the interior of the knee as they are to protect it from direct blows. This is most common in activities where you are at risk of landing on your knees, such as skateboarding, roller skating, biking, and volleyball.

Functional Post-Operative Knee Braces

These tend to be the largest knee braces, and you sometimes see these when people have suffered serious leg or knee injuries, or have recently had surgery. These have the option to completely immobilize the knee without needing to wear a cast. 

These knee braces typically include metal and plastic along with foam liners. They can usually be adjusted to allow for a certain range of motion as you heal from your injury or surgery.

Custom Knee Braces

All the above knee braces can be purchased right off the shelf. The problem is, sometimes none of them work quite like you need them to. Why?

It’s not because these options are no good. It’s because every knee, and every injury or condition, is a little bit different. We’ll discuss custom knee braces next, which is the best way to ensure you get the best knee brace for you.

How Are Custom Knee Braces Different from Non-Custom Ones?

The best possible knee brace is one that fits your knee perfectly, provides the knee support you need, and is comfortable and easy to put on.

If it doesn’t meet all these needs, you will be less likely to wear it. If your goal is to return to sports, resume an active lifestyle, get back to the workplace, and complete daily tasks and enjoy everyday life without knee pain, you need the best possible knee brace for your condition.

To create a custom knee brace, your best bet is to seek out an orthopedic physiotherapist who also designs custom knee braces. This way, your knee brace designer is also someone who understands the workings of the knee, not just the technology of the brace. 

The best custom knee braces will:

Fit your knee right

  • Conform to the shape
  • Not fall off or slip down easily as you move
  • Include all the features and specifications you want 
  • Be based on precise and personalized measurements

This is why, when you look at online reviews of some of the “best” knee braces, you’ll still find a sampling of unhappy 1 and 2-star reviews. Sometimes this can happen because of bad service, but often, the reason for these bad experiences is because the knee brace just didn’t fit them right. It was the wrong size and the wrong shape.

Plus, with a custom knee brace, your physiotherapist can show you how to put it on and take it off, and how to put it in exactly the right position on your knee.

And, custom knee braces are often covered by insurance.

Check out this post from Full Function Rehab & Wellness:

Best Knee Braces for Arthritis

Arthritis in the knee is a special reason to get a knee brace. Unlike injuries and tears, arthritis is a disease. However, left alone, untreated and unmanaged, it will cause far more damage than if you remain vigilant and proactive about it.

Combing your physical therapy work with a knee brace is a terrific combination as you battle arthritis in the knee. Here are five knee braces for arthritis:

Compression Sleeve

This is the same compression sleeve as mentioned before. It will minimize swelling and help with basic stability. If your arthritis is experienced merely as mild pain and swelling, the compression sleeve may be the ideal knee brace for you.

Rigid Hinge Knee Brace

The hinge brace applies compression like a sleeve, but also provides stability for your knee as it moves side to side, which can be a significant source of pain depending on the nature of your arthritis.

If you have arthritis that’s fairly under control, but then injured your knee doing something else, the hinged knee brace will help the other injury heal while you continue to move your knee so the arthritis doesn’t get worse.

Patello-Femoral Knee Brace

The best knee brace to use with patello-femoral pain is one with straps that can guide the kneecap and prevent it from moving where it shouldn’t.

If you feel pain – particularly around the kneecap – as you use the stairs or when you squat to lift something, this special kind of knee brace might be the best option.

Custom Hinge Knee Brace

We discussed custom braces earlier. If you have old injuries like an ACL or hyperextension, and are now suffering from arthritis, a hinged brace customized to your knee will provide all the usual benefits of a hinged brace, but will conform to your knee and provide extra protection and stability.

Custom Unloader Knee Brace

Arthritis in the knee usually affects one side more than the other. You’ve worn it down, and you’re feeling bone on bone. Relieving the pressure from that side is the single best thing you can do to keep the arthritis from spreading and getting worse.

With a customized unloader brace, you’ll get all the benefits of an unloader knee brace, but it will be designed specifically for your body, and where your knee needs the most support.

Best Knee Brace for a Torn MCL

The good thing about MCL sprains is that in the vast majority of cases, they will eventually heal on their own. There are three types of MCL sprains:

  • Grade 1 sprains – a slight stretch of the ligament – may need light sleeve/support
  • Grade 2 sprains – a stretch that may involve some torn components – moderate bracing
  • Grade 3 sprains – completely torn MCL, much more painful, responds well to hinged bracing

The Grade 2 MCL sprain often results in some limping and pain. These sprains will generally heal in 6-8 weeks. The bracing will provide good knee support while the ligament heals.

For a Grade 3 sprain, limping is much worse, and you feel like your knee is about to give out all the time. These take about 12 weeks to heal.

You want a brace that fits you well, is comfortable, washable, and can be returned if it doesn’t fit right. Again, you will find the best MCL knee brace if you work with a physiotherapist who specializes in knee joint rehabilitation.

Best Knee Bracing for Sports

Sports are unique. They are not like daily life activities.

There is running, jumping, pivoting, twisting, stopping, starting, rolling, dodging, planting, and kicking. And that’s just while you’re warming up.

All this movement wears down your knee joints, can lead to kneecap pain, and can lead to osteoarthritis. Basketball may be the single worst sport when it comes to knees. These conditions can make it hard just to walk later in life.

The key to prolonging the use of your knees is to keep exercising and moving, but with the help of knee braces to reduce pain and provide stability and flexibility.

We strongly recommend buying a knee brace for sports from a physical store instead of online, unless you plan to have one custom made, in which case you should work with a physical therapist.

Why? Because buying knee braces online can be very frustrating. In person, you can feel the fabric, get a clear sense of the sizing, and make comparisons. Many online reviews of knee braces – even the brands we’ve listed below – complain about inaccurate sizing charts, poor return policies, and other frustrations.

If your knee brace keeps slipping down your leg as you play sports, it is annoying and isn’t doing you much good. If you want the best fit for your sports knee brace, just like shoes – there is no substitute for buying in person.

With that in mind, here are some good knee braces for sports. Pretty much all of these can work for men and women, and can fit on either knee. 

Shock Doctor Ultra Knee Brace

The Shock Doctor knee brace is a hinged brace that helps avoid twisting and hyperextension, as well as a variety of other injuries. If you’ve had previous injuries like an ACL or a PCL, or surgery, this is a great knee brace to use. It is a great basketball knee brace for those who want to keep playing after suffering a knee injury.

Winzone Knee Brace

This compression knee brace protects the kneecap and the tendons, and does not restrict movement unlike a hinged brace. It’s also easy to take on and off and adjusts to a variety of knee types and sizes.

This knee brace will work well for exercising, for walking, and for doing household tasks.

Bracoo Adjustable Compression Knee Support Brace

This is a good knee brace for running and exercise because the adjustable straps prevent it from slipping down your leg, and it includes a reinforced stabilizer ring that keeps your kneecap in position.

The Bracoo is durable too, which is ideal for anyone with persistent knee problems.

Exous Knee Brace

This is a four-way brace with side stabilizers. This increases comfort while also allowing for a full range of motion and full knee support. This is a good knee brace for running and hiking. It also might be a good choice for anyone with weak knees, pain, or swelling.

BraceAbility Knee Brace

If you have larger legs or wide thighs and play sports, this knee brace is a good option. It includes silicone grips which help keep it stable and held in place. This is an unloading knee brace, and therefore an excellent choice if you need to relieve pressure on the joint.

5 Knee Strengthening Exercises for Knee Pain

Knee pain can initiate from many causes, improper exercise technique, sudden injuries, as well as weakened muscles and plain old stiffness from lack of movement. 

Your knee pain will tend to show up when sitting, running, walking, carrying or lifting, or climbing stairs.

These five exercises on their own will not resolve complicated knee injuries or problems like you’ve read in this guide. But combined with knee bracing and help from a physical therapist, you can identify the best knee exercises that will help improve your condition and enable you to get back to enjoying your life.

For knee injuries, the hips also need to be addressed for muscle strength and coordination as weakness and deficits here can affect the loading to the knees. None of these knee exercises should cause any pain. If they do, stop doing them and seek help from a physiotherapist.

The recommended amounts for all these exercises is 10 repetitions, 3 sets every day, for 2-3 weeks.

Clamshells

For clamshells, lay on your side and support your neck with a pillow or towel roll.

Bend your knees, hips bent about 45 deg and keep your back straight.

Lift the top knee toward the ceiling. Pause, then lower it. Imaging a clamshell opening and closing.

For additional strength training, add an elastic band around your knees. Keep your feet in contact with each other so only your knees are moving, and don’t let your pelvis roll backward.

Bridging

For bridges, lay on your back and bend your knees so your feet are flat on the ground. Support your head with a pillow or towel. Keep your knees, hips, and feet in line.

Tighten the muscles in your buttocks and lift your hips toward the ceiling as high as you can without back pain. Pause there, and lower back down.

For additional strength training, use an elastic band and pull your knees apart before lifting off the ground.

Hip Abduction

Lay on your side again, but this time bend only the bottom knee. Keep the top leg straight and support your head as before.

Lift your leg toward the ceiling, with toes facing forward. Don’t lift it higher than the line of your body. Pause there, and then lower.

Straight Leg Raise

Lay on your back again and support your head. Bend one knee so your foot is flat and back is not arched.

Straighten the other leg with toes pointing up, and lift the leg until it reaches the height of the bent knee. Pause there, and lower it back down.

Seated Knee Extensions

In a seated position, straighten your knee against gravity. 

You can make this more difficult by adding weight on your ankle or attaching an elastic band to your ankle. 

Hold at the top for 3 seconds and repeat for 2 sets 8-10 repetitions. 

Top 7 Best Selling Knee Bracing Brands

Lists of best selling knee braces will always be changing, but it will help you get started by taking a look at some of the biggest names. Again, the knee brace recommendation that matters most is that which comes from your physiotherapist.

Bauerfeind

As the name implies, this is a German-made knee brace. The Bauerfeind Genutrain Knee Brace is one of their most popular and more affordable options. It provides adjustable straps, pressure points to minimize pain and maximize circulation, breathable material, and comes in six sizes.

These work great for patients with patellas that are prone to dislocation, chondromalacia, or arthritis.

Donjoy Tru Pull Lite Knee Brace

Donjoy knee braces are one of the most popular brands. This particular one anchors at the thigh and the calf and is best for patients with patellar pain, anterior knee pain, tendonitis, or osteoarthritis.

Donjoy Reaction Web Knee Brace

This Donjoy knee brace was designed by an orthopedic surgeon. It is built to absorb shock and shift pressure away from pain you may be feeling in your knee. This is a good Jumper’s Knee brace, and also works well for patients with instability in their knees, or osteoarthritis.

Donjoy Playmaker

Yet another Donjoy knee brace, this is a hinged brace that controls your range of motion. It a great knee brace for ACL injuries, as well as for patients recovering from ligament strains.

Medspec Dynatrack Knee Brace

This knee brace applies constant pressure regardless of the position of your leg. It has an extra lining that prevents it from slipping, and it fits nicely under clothing. It works well for patients with unstable knees and those who have had a ligament injury.

Breg T-Scope Post-Op

This is a post-op brace or a brace that is good for conditions that need restrictions. Breg knee brace includes buckle clips and hinge bars that adjust to the length of your leg and lock it within a certain range of motion. 

ThermoActive Hot & Cold Knee Support

This knee brace includes a special polygel pack that applies hot and cold around the knee along with uniform compression. A handpump adjusts the level of compression. This is a good knee brace for ACL injuries and for anyone who has had knee surgery or injuries to their meniscus.

Common Injuries Successfully Treated with Knee Braces

Again, a knee brace alone will not usually ‘heal’ the problem in your knee if that’s all you do. But it can help prevent new injuries or re-occurring ones.

Have your knees ever felt stiff, especially in the morning? Do you feel pain or tenderness? Do you see swelling happening, even after just routine activities? Does it buckle or lock sometimes, or crack and pop?

All these sorts of symptoms can be alleviated to some degree with the right knee brace. If you don’t do something about it, eventually you may find yourself struggling to walk for longer distances, climb stairs, stand up and sit down, and perform other simple tasks. With an unrehabilitated knee, even a relatively low-impact sport like golf will become too difficult – even with a golf cart.

Whatever your injury or condition, finding the right knee brace is the most critical part of this process. A physiotherapist can help assess your situation and recommend the best knee brace for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Basic compression knee sleeves and hinge braces generally run less than $100. The more expensive custom knee braces cost more, but are often covered by insurance.
It depends on the brace and the injury or condition you are trying to work on. Generally, you will wear the brace for 30-60 minutes at first. You can increase this to a few hours as you get used to it, and depending on the activities you’re doing. The more active you are, the more you should be wearing it.
Watch your skin for irritation or other issues, and keep up with your strengthening exercises so your muscles don’t atrophy and lose their functionality. The purpose of a knee brace is not to just sit there without moving. It’s to move more safely while it heals and strengthens.

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