The exposed position of the knee leaves it open to injury during athletic activities. Considering that the knee is the largest joint in the body, extra care is needed to ensure it is functioning optimally. Traditional knee injury management focused on strength, flexibility and technique, but this has now changed to accommodate protective as well as therapeutic components. Knee braces are support structures intended for prevention or use as part of treatment for knee injuries. They are available in a variety of designs but are mostly constructed with a mixture of rigid and flexible materials to provide both support and padding.
There are four general categories of knee braces: Functional knee braces, Unloader/ off-loader knee braces, Rehabilitative knee braces and Prophylactic knee braces. In addition, there is the knee sleeve which is technically not a brace but is sometimes referred to as one because of its use. The type of braces used will depend on the long run objective of the user. Braces are used for different knee problems and each type works differently for every individual. Here is a look at how each knee brace category works and is likely to benefit you.
Functional Knee Braces
These are used after injury and aim to provide support to the knee after injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Functional knee braces are modified to suit the type of injury or injuries to ensure proper support to the affected ligaments. Doctors usually recommend them as part of treatment after the severity of an injury has been established. Most functional knee braces are made from stretchy fabric with metal hinges on each side of the knee. However, in extreme cases, a rigid frame knee brace with hinges may be necessary. In addition to providing improved stability, the braces also lessen the risk of injuring other parts of the knee. They are especially recommended to the people involved in high impact activities such as twisting, jumping or pivoting.
Functional braces are best for use after surgery, sports injuries and as part of rehabilitation. They however do not return normal knee stability and thus patients may feel unstable without them, particularly when exposed to high force. Nonetheless, a properly fitting functional knee brace can be of great benefit to people recovering from injuries by reducing translation and rotation as well as for those recovering from surgery by providing the needed extra support.
Unloader/ Off-loader Knee Braces
Just as the name suggests, the unloader knee braces unload or offload’ stress from the knee. They are often used for medial compartment osteoarthritis knees. People suffering from medial osteoarthritis knees experience a wobble towards the inside of their knees. This may cause them to exhibit some signs of instability as they walk and could also be painful. Unloader knee braces are tailor-made from molded plastic, steel and foam to restrict the side to side movement of the joint. The design of the braces allow it to put three points of pressure on the thigh bone and this forces the knee to bend in the painful angle.
The Unloader/Off-loader braces are usually used alongside other osteoarthritis treatments. They come in a variety of designs and thus professional advice is needed to choose the most suitable one. They are particularly helpful to those awaiting surgery or looking forward to cut reliance on pain medication. Users of unloader braces can enjoy a more improved life as they are able to use their knees normally and more frequently compared to before having the braces. The braces are however quite costly and do not offer absolute relief for the underlying condition(s).
Rehabilitative Knee Braces
These braces are designed to restrict unnatural movement of the knee which could interfere with healing but still allows for a certain degree of motion. They are normally used for between 2-8 weeks and are effective at restoring knee health compared to splints or cases. This is because rehabilitative braces leave room for swelling and can be easily removed to examine the healing progress of the knee. They also allow for a controlled range of motion movement.
Rehabilitative knee braces feature foam lines that edge the calf, thigh and knee, as well as adjustable full-length rigid frames on both sides with hinges at the knee. They can have 6 to 8 straps to hold them in place and can be bought off the shelf, as they are adjustable. The braces are best for restoring knee function and controlling movement after sport injuries or surgery.
These are braces comprising of bars, hinges and adhesive straps and are intended to protect the knee from harm that may occur because of contact sports. Prophylactic braces are specifically designed to prevent injury to the medial collateral ligament (MCL). A study showed that using prophylactic braces could provide 20-30% MCL strain relief and knee stiffness. The braces also prevent repeated injury to an already healing knee and support cruciate ligaments during rotational stress. They are best used in athletic activities, as they tend to reduce injury rate on the knee. Athletes wearing the braces exhibit improved performance and enhanced confidence during sports. The braces can also be used for mild to moderate knee instabilities.
Knee sleeves offer an increased sense of knee support. They are usually made from flexible fabric with slight padding over the knee cap, and feature an opening at the kneecap and straps. They can be used to reduce pain or swelling in the treatment of patellofemoral and when inclusive of a knee pad, they offers added protection to the front of the knee. Knee sleeves may help reduce swelling and provide a feeling of comfort after injury, but could also not offer the needed knee stability. They are the most common type of knee support worn by the average athlete.
While knee braces help prevent and heal knee injuries, it is still important to take other precautionary measures that will ensure the good health of your knees. Proper exercise routines as well as good feeding habits need to be observed to ensure that your joints are working well. Regular doctor visits could also help identify and prevent risk factors associated with knee functions and health. Moreover, always make sure to consult a doctor in order to determine the most suitable knee brace for your condition.
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