Knee pain can make everyday activities painful, let alone your typical workout routine. When you’re experiencing knee pain due to overuse or injury, a brace may allow you to continue with your activities, including exercise, by supporting the knee while it heals. Factors to consider when using a knee brace include the type of brace needed and the length of time you need to use the brace. Consulting your healthcare provider will give you more specific information on your particular knee pain, but in general, there are guidelines to follow for using a brace.
What Is a Knee Brace?
A knee brace is a wrap that goes on the knee to provide additional support for your knee when you’re experiencing pain in the joint. Knee braces can also be worn to prevent injuries during physical activities such as sports. Braces are typically made of a combination of elastic, plastic, metal, or foam straps and materials. They are available in a variety of colors, designs, and sizes and can be purchased over-the-counter at your local pharmacy or general store.
The medical field has varying opinions on the use of knee braces. While some medical professionals believe that using a knee brace supports and aids in healing, others believe it weakens the joint and muscles and isn’t a good idea. Therefore, it’s essential to consult with your doctor to determine whether the knee pain you’re experiencing would benefit from the use of a knee brace or not. Your doctor will also help you determine which style or type of brace will support your knee, and they can recommend when and how long to use the brace.
When Should You Use a Knee Brace?
Knee braces are used to provide structural support or pain relief to an injured knee. For example, if you’ve suffered an ACL or meniscus tear, a knee brace can provide structural support while you heal from the injury. There are three types of knee braces that provide structural support, including:
- Prophylactic. These knee braces help prevent injury to your knees during contact sports.
- Rehabilitative. Braces are designed to limit the up-and-down and side-to-side movement of the knee during the rehabilitation process.
- Functional. A simple brace that adds some stability and protection to an injured knee.
Braces can also be worn to provide pain relief due to chronic pain from an old injury or osteoarthritis. The primary type of brace for this use is called an unloader brace, as it’s designed to unload the stress on the inner knee and relieve pain caused by this stress. This brace is typically custom-made of foam, molded plastic, and steel struts that limit the side-to-side movement of your knee. In addition, the brace creates three pressure points on the thigh bone, forcing your knee to bend away from the pain.
How Long Should You Wear a Knee Brace?
The amount of time you will wear a knee brace depends on several factors, including the type of knee injury, whether or not you had knee surgery, and your activity levels.
One of the most common knee injuries is an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. The ACL is a strong band that connects your shinbone to your thigh bone and is often injured due to jumping and landing or sudden changes in direction. People who experience an ACL tear may hear a popping sound or feel a popping sensation in the knee at the time of the injury.
Depending on the severity of the ACL injury, treatment can range from rest and rehabilitation to surgery to repair or replace the ACL. Your doctor will recommend a knee brace based on this severity. The typical length of time you can expect to wear a knee brace will also vary depending on the severity of your injury. Common times include:
- First-degree tear. In this case, the ACL is stretched rather than torn. You may experience some swelling and tenderness but should be able to walk and bear weight. You will need to wear a knee brace while the ligament heals, typically four to six weeks.
- Second-degree tear. A partial tearing of the ACL is considered a second-degree tear. This type of tear will cause moderate swelling and tenderness, and you may find walking painful, causing you to limp. A second-degree tear may not require surgery, but your doctor will recommend using a brace for six to eight weeks while the tear heals.
- Third-degree tear. If you’ve experienced a third-degree tear, you have completely torn your ACL. This degree of tear will cause you tremendous pain and significant swelling when the injury occurs. The pain may subside as time goes on; however, you will find it difficult to walk as the ligament can no longer hold your knee in place. A third-degree tear will likely require surgery to repair or replace the ligament. You can expect to wear a brace for support for eight to ten weeks after surgery.
Another common knee injury is a meniscus tear. The meniscus is the horseshoe-shaped cartilage that absorbs the shock between your tibia (lower bone) and femur (thigh bone). A torn meniscus will usually require surgery to clip any torn cartilage to prevent the meniscus from tearing further. The severity of your meniscus tear will determine the type of brace you use as well as how long you need to use the brace.
- Minor or degenerative tear. With this type of tear, you can wear a basic knee sleeve to support your knee.
- Major tear. A meniscus that’s torn on both sides may require a hinged ligament brace.
After surgery, you’ll need to wear a knee brace for six weeks to support your bones and ligaments while they heal. A brace will protect your joint and prevent further injury. Also, after surgery, your body requires plenty of sleep to help it heal. You should wear your knee brace when you sleep, keeping your knee propped up on pillows to alleviate pain.