Knees are prone to a variety of injuries. Such injuries involve the bone, such as fractures or dislocations, or the soft tissues, including the ligaments and cartilage within the knee joint that support it and absorb stress. If you play any sport or run, you may have had a knee injury in the past that impacted your ability to exercise. Ever mindful that you’re at higher risk of re-injury if you’ve injured a knee in the past, you might wonder whether wearing a brace on your knee when you exercise will lower your risk of reinjury. You might also wonder whether wearing one when your knees are healthy helps prevent knee pain or injury. Let’s look at whether wearing a knee brace is of benefit for keeping your knees injury-free.
Types of Knee Braces
Knee braces come in a variety of materials and levels of support. You can find braces made from light, flexible materials, sometimes called a knee sleeve, to braces with hinges that limit movement but provide maximum knee support. Most people who wear heavy-duty braces wear them after a surgical procedure or after a knee injury, such as an ACL tear. The best brace will depend upon a person’s injury or the degree of pain they have. After an injury, it’s best to have a physician prescribe a knee brace to ensure your knee gets the best support.
Do Knee Braces Prevent Knee Injuries?
Sometimes people wear a knee brace because they want to feel like they’re taking measures to prevent injury. However, studies looking at whether they lower the rate of injury are inconsistent. Most don’t show that wearing a brace to prevent a knee injury is effective. However, a few studies suggest that wearing one may lower the risk of an injury to the medial collateral ligament. However, some experts believe that wearing a brace for protection could increase the risk of injury by altering movement patterns and by giving a false sense of security. You might take chances that you wouldn’t take because you’re wearing a brace.
What does science say about braces? According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics, there isn’t strong evidence that wearing a brace for prevention lowers the risk of injuring a ligament in the knee. For injury prevention, they don’t recommend wearing one. However, they point out we need more research to draw a firm conclusion about their effectiveness.
If You Wear a Brace
If you wear a knee brace to protect your knees, make sure it fits properly. It should provide firm support to your knees, yet not be so tight that it interferes with circulation. When choosing a brace to prevent knee injury, select the longest one that still fits your leg. Longer braces protect the medial collateral ligament better than ones that cover less of the knee.
If you haven’t had a serious knee injury, don’t have active knee pain, and are just looking for a little knee support, a knee sleeve may work best. The next level up would be a brace that wraps around your knee but doesn’t have hinges. They provide more support than a knee sleeve but less than a hinged brace. If you have knee arthritis or have some knee pain when you exercise from an old injury, a wraparound brace might be a good choice. You’ll get the most support from a hinged knee brace, but it will also be bulky and limit your movements.
If you have to wear one, check your brace regularly to make sure they aren’t becoming worn or damaged. A brace that has lots of wear and tear won’t support the knee as well. The benefits of knee braces are already questionable, but a worn one is even less useful.
Downsides to Wearing a Knee Brace When You Exercise
If you have a knee injury and your doctor prescribed a knee brace, wear it as your physician recommends. But if you’re strapping one on hoping to prevent a future injury, it may not do the trick. Plus, there are downsides to wearing a brace. Some knee sleeves are made of neoprene and some people are allergic to this material. A brace made of any material can cause skin irritation, especially during exercise when moisture can collect underneath the brace.
A knee brace can make it harder to exercise too, especially if you’re wearing anything more supportive than a knee sleeve. Plus, wearing a brace can cause you to favor the opposite knee and that can cause that knee to feel stiff if you do it too often. The best approach is to ask your physician or physical therapist whether you need a brace and what kind they recommend. For example, if you have a history of knee arthritis, you might benefit from an unloader brace, one that shifts the weight from an area of damage to a healthier part of the knee.
The Bottom Line
Even if you wear one, don’t become too dependent on a brace to lower your risk of injury. It’s more important to modify your exercise routine in a way that doesn’t overly stress a knee at a higher risk of injury. Here are some tips:
- Work on strengthening the muscles in your thighs that support your knees. Also, include core-strengthening exercises in your routine.
- Always warm-up before launching into a workout.
- Work on flexibility by stretching your hip flexors, quads, and hamstrings.
- Use good form when you strength train and use pain and discomfort as a guide to modify what you’re doing.
- Watch your weight. The more weight you carry on your frame, the more force your knees have to bear.
- com. “Common Knee Injuries”
- Am Fam Physician. 2000 Jan 15;61(2):411-418.
- Mayo Clinic. “Knee braces for osteoarthritis”
- Pietrosimone, Brian G et al. “A systematic review of prophylactic braces in the prevention of knee ligament injuries in collegiate football players.” Journal of Athletic Training. Vol. 43,4 (2008): 409-15. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-43.4.409.
- Summit Medical Group. “Preventing Knee Injury and Knee Pain”