Knee braces fall into four general categories: Prophylactic Braces, Functional Braces, Rehabilitative Braces and Unloader Braces. There is also a fifth type of knee support called a Knee Sleeve, which technically is not a brace but which is sometimes referred to as one.
Regardless of which type of knee brace you choose, it should not interfere with normal knee function or increase the risk of injury to any other part of the lower body or to other players.
Prophylactic braces are constructed of bars, hinges, and adhesive straps and designed to protect the knee from damage that can occur during contact sports such as football, basketball, and hockey. More specifically, they are intended to help prevent injury to the MCL. (Duffy) At least one study shows they can provide a 20 to 30 percent increase in MCL strain relief and knee stiffness. (Brown) They can also protect against re-injury after previous MCL injury and support cruciate ligaments during rotational stresses.
Two large studies have evaluated injury rates related to use of prophylactic knee braces. A West Point study of tackle football players found that cadets who did not wear a prophylactic knee brace had more than a twofold increase in knee injuries compared with cadets who did not wear the brace. (Sitler) In a Big Ten Conference study, the researchers found that players at increased risk of MCL injury, including linebackers and tight ends, had a reduced injury rate when they wore a prophylactic knee brace. (Albright)
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Best for: Sports injuries, rehabilitation, after surgery, and following ACL surgery.
Functional braces are used after a knee injury and provides support while the knee injury is healing. The type of functional brace you need is determined by the type of injury, and there are functional knee braces to treat MCL, ACL, PCL, LCL, and combination injuries. In each case, there are specific functional knee braces that apply the appropriate forces to support the affected ligament.
After an injury, your doctor may prescribe a knee brace as part of your rehabilitation program. A functional knee brace comes in several types, and your doctor will prescribe the one that matches the severity of your injury. For mild to moderate collateral ligament injuries, the most common style is made of stretchy neoprene material and has metal hinges on either side of the knee. For more severe injuries, a knee brace that uses a rigid frame with hinges may be necessary. In many cases, an off-the-shelf brace can be used as long as the proper measurements are taken, unless your doctor recommends a custom fit model.
Functional knee braces are designed to reduce knee instability after an injury and are usually recommended for people who participate in jumping, twisting, pivoting, or cutting activities. In addition to providing better stability, functional knee braces may also reduce the risk of injuring other parts of the knee. After ACL reconstruction, a functional knee brace may be used for 6 to 12 months to reduce strain on an ACL graft.
Depending on the type of functional knee brace selected, some patients say they are uncomfortable and hot, and that the material (neoprene) irritates the skin. (There are substitutes for neoprene.) For people who have a very unstable knee or who have other significant ligament injuries, these knee braces may not be helpful. Functional knee braces do not return normal stability to the knee, so the knee may still feel unstable when exposed to high force. However, when a functional knee brace is fitted properly and used as part of a general knee rehabilitation program, it can benefit people who are recovering from knee injuries or knee surgery.
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Best for: Sports injuries, rehabilitation, after surgery, and movement control.
Rehabilitative knee braces are designed to limit movement of the knee while it is healing after an injury or surgery. They can protect injured ligaments and control knee movement during rehabilitation for an injured ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL, or meniscus. These knee braces are typically used for only two to eight weeks while using crutches immediately after an injury or surgery. They are more rehabilitative than a splint or case because they allow space for swelling, the ability to remove the brace to examine the knee, and the ability to move in a controlled range of motion.
Rehabilitative braces typically consist of foam liners that surround the calf, thigh, and knee, along with full-length rigid bars on both sides with hinges at the knee that are adjustable. A total of six to eight straps hold the brace in place. Rehabilitative braces are usually off-the-shelf and adjustable in size.
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Unloader braces are usually prescribed for people who have medial (inner part of the knee) compartment Knee osteoarthritis. These knee braces unload stress from the affected joint by placing pressure on the thigh bone. This forces the knee to bend away from the painful area. The braces are custom-designed and made of molded plastic, steel, and foam to limit movement from side to side. They can be helpful for people who are waiting to have knee replacement surgery.
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Best for: Knee pain, stability, reduce knee strain.
Although technically not a knee brace, a knee sleeve is the most common type of knee support worn by the average athlete and more casual exerciser, including tennis players, joggers, and walkers. They provide compression around the knee joint and some knee stability. Knee sleeves are typically made of material such as neoprene, drytex, or Polartec and are the least expensive type of knee support. Although you can buy knee sleeves off the shelf at your local pharmacy, you should still check with your doctor before using one.
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Related to ‘Types of Knee Braces’
Albright JP, et al. Medial collateral ligament knee sprains in college football. Brace wear preferences and injury risk. Am J Sports Med 1994; 22(1):2–11.
Brown TD, et al. Laboratory evaluation of prophylactic knee brace performance under dynamic valgus loading using a surrogate leg model. Clin Sports Med 1990; 9(4):751–62.
Duffy PS, Miyamoto RG. Management of medial collateral ligament injuries in the knee: an update and review. Physician Sportsmedicine 2010; 38(2)
Sitler M et al. The efficacy of a prophylactic knee brace to reduce knee injuries in football. A prospective, randomized study at West Point. Am J Sports Med 1990; 18(3):310–15.