An orthopedic knee brace can be used to treat a variety of injuries. However, these braces are all designed to achieve at least one of two general goals. The first will be to stabilize the muscles and ligaments of the knee in order to accelerate the healing process and/or to reduce the risk of re-injury. The second objective may be to reduce the pressure on the knee in order to achieve the same purpose (injury protection).
In what follows, we provide a quick overview of the various types of knee brace that are commonly used and the types of injuries or conditions for which each may be suited.
Prophylactic Knee Brace
These are designed to proactively protect the knee from the types of injuries that may occur during contact sports like hockey or football. Anatomically, these braces are mainly designed to protect the medial collateral ligament (MCL) of the knee. However, they can also be used to protect the MCL from re-injury after you have suffered previous damage to the ligament.
A prophylactic knee brace may also provide support to the cruciate ligaments of the knee and thus reduce the risk of injury in the face of rotational stresses. It will usually be obtained off the shelf.
Functional Knee Brace
This type of knee support is primarily worn after you have suffered an injury. It will provide support to the knee during the healing process. By contrast with a prophylactic knee brace, this brace will assist not only the MCL, but also the other 3 major ligaments of the knee – the anterior cruciate ligament, the posterior cruciate ligament and the lateral collateral ligament.
This type of knee brace is usually off the shelf. It may be made of neoprene or some other elastic material but will commonly have metal hinges on either side to provide additional support and stability to the knee. If you have an allergy to neoprene, there are some brands that offer braces made of hypo allergenic materials. These may be easier for you to wear over a prolonged period, which will promote more rapid healing.
These are similar to the functional braces referred to above, in that they are also designed to limit movement of the knee during the healing period. However, these can protect the meniscus of the knee in addition to the four major ligaments. They are also used in the period immediately following injury and will accompany the use of crutches. They are also designed to permit swelling of the knee and can be removed for periodic examination of the healing progress.
These braces are also designed to reduce the range of motion of the knee instead of immobilizing it completely. As with the above types of brace, these supports will usually be obtained off the shelf.
This is probably the most commonly worn type of knee brace and can usually be seen on occasional athletes and “weekend warriors”. These braces will provide some compression around the knee and will also be effective in treating mild knee instability. As a rule, a knee sleeve will be made from an elastic material like neoprene for optimal compression and will not have the hinges that you will see on a functional or rehabilitative knee brace, for example.
If you have an allergy to neoprene or some other medical condition that is caused by exposure to it, you can look for a brace that is made of a hypoallergenic material. Such a brace may be worn for longer periods without discomfort and will therefore be more effective in repairing your injury as soon as possible.
Knee sleeves are the least sophisticated type of support in terms of design and, as a consequence, will also be the least expensive. They will invariably be obtained off the shelf and of course may be bought from this site.
Unloader Knee Brace
Unlike the four types of brace discussed above, an unloader knee brace will almost invariably be custom made and so will not be among the braces offered for sale on this site. This type of support is designed to reduce pressure on the knee area by transferring it to the thigh. It can be made of plastic, steel or foam and, as a custom product, will generally be a lot more expensive than an off the shelf product.
This type of brace will usually be indicated for someone with a more serious knee condition, such as patients awaiting knee replacement surgery.
In summary, you can see that there is a vast variety of knee braces out there and that they vary considerably in terms of the types of injuries/conditions they are designed to treat. If you are in doubt as to which knee brace is the best for you, it would be advisable to consult with your doctor, occupational therapist or physiotherapist before proceeding. Making the incorrect choice of brace will delay the healing process at best, and in some cases may even lead to a worse injury than was initially incurred.
As mentioned, if you are concerned about wearing your brace for a prolonged period without discomfort, you can look into one of the non neoprene,non latex alternatives available on the market.
As with other types of orthopedic brace, it is also important to choose a knee brace with as much breathability and “wicking” capability as you can afford. Breathability refers to the brace’s ability to allow the skin to absorb oxygen through its material and to maintain a natural body temperature while you are wearing it. Wicking refers to its ability to absorb moisture (from e.g. perspiration) as you perform your normal daily activities. Both of these qualities will make the brace comfortable to wear over an extended period, something that you will by now have realized is of the highest level of importance in choosing a knee brace.