Knee pain can be one of the most debilitating issues for runners, exercisers, and lifters alike.

Whether it’s a nagging pain or a dull, lingering ache, it can prevent you from feeling good during your workout or prevent you from reaching your training goals. But a knee brace can be a great tool to help ease your pain and heal certain injuries and issues.

“Knee braces can be helpful for generalized knee pain,” says Rick Stauffer, PT, SCS, CSCS, PES, co-owner and director at PRN Physical Therapy. “They offer compression and can make the person feel more confident with their activities.”

Knee Issues That May Require a Knee Brace

There are many types of knee ligament injuries and issues that can cause prolonged knee conditions.

“The most common knee problems for adult men include ligamentous injuries, meniscus injuries, tendinopathy and osteoarthritis (OA),” says Stauffer.

Here are a few examples of knee issues:

Problem 1: ACL Injury

The ACL is a major ligament on the inside of your knee.

“It is typically injured when the knee either hyper extends or goes into too much knee valgus (caving in of the knee),” says Stauffer. “It is typically a plant-and-twist mechanism. It can happen in any sport but is most common in soccer, basketball, football, volleyball, lacrosse and skiing. Typically, the person will feel a distinguishable ‘pop’ or giving way of the knee. There is usually pain and swelling following the injury. It can be a contact or non-contact mechanism.”

ACL injuries often require surgery, especially if the person plans on returning to high demand/change of direction activities, notes Stauffer.

“If the person had surgery, the physician might recommend a custom-fit brace as they return to sport,” says Stauffer. “In general, you would want a de-rotational brace that works to minimize the translation of the tibia (lower leg bone) preventing the knee from hyperextension.”

Problem 2: Patellar Tendonitis a.k.a. Jumper’s Knee

This is inflammation of the patellar tendon as a result of over-use and/or repetitive activities,” says Kraig Solak, DO, Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Surgeon at
Precision Orthopaedic Specialties Inc., in Chardon, Ohio. “Common in sports or activities like volleyball and basketball, symptoms include pain and tenderness over and around the patellar tendon, swelling, and increased pain with jumping, running, or walking.”

Problem 3: MCL Injury

MCL injures can happen the same way as an ACL injury. Typically, it’s a knee valgus injury.

“MCL injures can take 3 to 12 weeks to heal but rarely need surgery. Initially after injury, the patient will describe ‘weakness’ or sensation of knee-buckling or a giving-way sensation,” says Stauffer. “Braces can provide a sense of stability for this situation, especially as the athlete recovers, with struts on the inside of the brace to minimize the knee from buckling. The brace may only need to be used temporarily until the person regains the strength/stability and neuromuscular control of the knee.”

Problem 4: Sprains and/or Other Torn Ligaments/Cartilage

Ligaments are fibrous connective tissues in the body that connect bone to bone. The meniscus is a pad of connective tissue or cartilage that act as shock absorbers between two bones. There is a medial and a lateral meniscus in the knee, explains Dr. Solak.

“This injury can occur one of two ways: a contact injury in which a blow to the knee (i.e. being tackled during a football game) buckles it in the wrong direction, or a non-contact injury (i.e. landing awkwardly or cutting) that results in a sudden twisting or giving out of the knee,” says Dr. Solak. “These injuries result in a partial tear or complete rupture of one or more of the ligaments (Anterior Cruciate Ligament [ACL], Posterior Cruciate Ligament, Lateral Collateral Ligament, Medial Collateral Ligament [MCL]) that surround the knee or a tear of the meniscus. Symptoms include stabbing pain, joint-line tenderness, swelling, decreased range of motion (ROM), difficulty walking, or mechanical symptoms such as popping, cracking, giving out, or locking.”

Problem 5: Arthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative change in the articular cartilage of the knee that gradually wears away over time.

“It generally affects middle-age and older people, but may also be caused by increased stresses on the knee such as repeated injury or being overweight,” says Dr. Solak. “Symptoms include gradual onset of pain over time, swelling, mechanical symptoms (popping, locking, buckling), decreased ROM, loss of joint space/height, and deformities of the knee. Some of these deformities may result in ‘bone-on-bone’ changes at the knee. Osteoarthritis usually affects one compartment of the knee more than others.”

The Different Types of Knee Braces

Of course, there are different braces for different knee issues. According to the experts they can be broken down into 4 different categories.

Prophylactic Braces: “These braces are used to protect/prevent the knee joint from injury,” says Mario DiMattia, AT. Athletic Trainer and Durable Medical Equipment Coordinator at Precision Orthopaedic Specialties Inc., Chardon, Ohio. “These braces are regularly available at drug-stores or sporting goods stores. Basic hinged knee braces, knee sleeves, patellar tendon straps, and DonJoy Reaction braces are a common form of these.”

Rehabilitative Braces: “These are used to allow the knee to heal from an injury or surgery,” says DiMattia. “Generally, these braces are used immediately after injury or surgery and can limit the motion of the knee during the healing phase to allow for proper healing. They are designed to fit over bulky dressings or a swollen knee.”

Functional Braces: “These are used after an injury to provide stability after an injury or surgery of the knee,” says DiMattia. “These braces often require a prescription from the doctor and the brace you get will be dependent on the specific type of injury. Generally, these are used when an athlete is returning to activities such as running, walking, hiking, or other sports after surgery or an injury has healed.”

Unloader Braces: “These braces are for people who have arthritis of the knee,” says DiMattia. “They work by transferring the load off of the joint surface that is degenerated. The intent of the brace is to decrease pain and increase function of the knee.”

Choosing the Right Knee Brace For You

“Knee braces come in all different shapes and sizes, as do the legs of men. Be sure to follow the manufacturer recommendations when choosing the appropriate size and even then, the brace may not fit properly so be sure that where ever you order the brace from takes returns/exchanges,” says Dr. Solak. “Braces can be expensive, so it may be best to talk to a specialist prior to ordering a brace to make sure that it is the best type of brace for the injury that you have. ”

There are a few things to keep in mind when trying out a new brace.

Personal Preference

What feels good to one person may not be for another. The most important thing is to keep moving and finding exercises and activities that feel good, says Stauffer.

Monitor how you feel while you exercise and afterwards

Exercise should never be painful. It’s great to have some post-exercise soreness, but you should never have joint pain following a workout. If you do, consider seeing a professional to determine what is appropriate for you, says Stauffer.

However, a knee brace is not going to be a substitute for an injury like an ACL tear.

“This will typically require surgery for long-term health and function,” says Stauffer. “It is advisable to see a professional whenever you hear an audible pop with swelling and loss of mobility or difficult putting weight on your knee.”

The Best Knee Braces to Try

Looking to try a knee brace? Here are 9 to consider.

DonJoy Reaction Knee Brace

“This brace is useful for any kneecap related pain,” notes Dr. Solak and DiMattia.

Reparel Knee Sleeve

“This knee sleeve is good for many conditions such as swelling, repetitive knee injuries, sports injuries, and degenerative joints,” says Dr. Solak and DiMattia.

DonJoy Playmaker Drytex Knee Brace or Breg RoadRunner Knee Brace

“These braces are useful for ligament sprains as well as other instabilities of the knee. This brace can also be helpful for mild osteoarthritis,” says Dr. Solak and DiMattia.

Breg Fusion XT with Airtech Knee Brace

“This brace is used after surgical reconstruction of the knee. It can also be used to protect the knee from injury during sports,” says Dr. Solak and DiMattia.

Ossur Unloader One Knee Brace or Breg Fusion OA Unloader

“These braces are good for mild to moderate osteoarthritis or to offload a meniscus after surgical repair,” according to Dr. Solak and DiMattia.

Ossur Formfit Tracker Knee Brace or DonJoy Tru-Pull Lite Knee Support Brace

“These knee braces are used for minor sprains and strains of the knee as well as other patellar-femoral issues,” says Dr. Solak and DiMattia. “This type of knee brace is also good for general support of the knee during activity.”

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