How Do Knee Braces Work? | Benefits of Braces and Sleeves, Choosing What’s Best

A licensed physical therapist putting a knee braces to the patient

Knee braces are popular garments for knee problems. You know braces may reduce pain and support your knee, but… How do knee braces work?

There’s a wide variety of knee supports. What they all have in common is that they work by protecting the knee and supporting the knee joint.

But they do so in different ways, depending on what you need:

  • Knee sleeves provide compression to the joint. In turn, this can reduce pain and swelling after a workout. But, they won’t give you the support you need if you have a severe ligament tear.
  • Hinged knee braces can help you recover from surgery by reducing the range of motion of your knee. But they’re usually excessive for day-to-day stuff.

Here, I’ll tell you:

  • How does a knee brace work? And knee sleeve? And a hinged brace?
  • How to choose the right knee brace and adequate size for you.

How does a knee brace work?

A knee brace works by providing protection, compression, and stability in different levels:

How a knee brace provides protection and support for the knee varies. It’s going to depend on the type of brace and your particular knee injury.

The most popular types of knee supports are sleeves and braces. Let’s see how each one works:

How do knee sleeves work?

Sleeves are usually made of neoprene. It’s a stretchy fabric that provides compression all-around your knee joint. Some have a hole for the patella, while others have straps or removable hinges.

This compression is meant to:

They’re best suited for people that:

  • Have mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis.
  • Want to reduce the mild pain and swelling after working out.
  • Have a great lifting technique and want to hit new personal records.
  • Are overcoming a mild or moderate knee injury under the supervision of a doctor or physical therapist.

Speaking of physical therapists, we can help you find a competent PT!

How do hinged knee braces work?

A hinged brace is more rigid than a sleeve. It’s usually a bulky structure made of plastic or metal, with straps to keep it in place.

Some have a dial that restricts the movement of the knee. Surgeons use this to help your knee heal after ligament surgery.

Their bulky structure protects the knee from direct impact. Like during contact sports or in the vulnerable period immediately after surgery.

Some hinges support the knee and help redistribute the pressure within the joint. This can be helpful in meniscal injuries.

A hinged brace might be best for people:

  • With moderate to severe knee injuries – like tears on ligaments.
  • That underwent knee surgery.
  • With severe knee arthritis.

How to choose the right type of knee brace

There are several types of knee braces. Which one to choose will depend on the intent, your type of injury, lifestyle, and other factors.

Your physician or physical therapist will know which type of brace will be best for you. Here are the most common types of knee braces (1):

Rehabilitative and functional braces

They’re usually bulky hinges that protect the knee during the period after surgery. These are the ones that can restrict knee function after surgery.

They can help during knee rehabilitation, providing support and stability to the knee. Also, they can give extra stability for unstable knees, like after a mild or moderate ACL injury. (1)

Some may also include a knee sleeve for compression, which can reduce pain and swelling.

Your doctor may suggest buying a custom brace, depending on your injury.

Prophylactic brace

This one helps prevent or reduce the risk of knee injuries in otherwise healthy knees. They’re very common in contact sports.

Some people think a custom brace is best than one off-the-shelf. But, some research suggests that for someone without a previous knee injury, it may not matter. (1, 2)

A prophylactic brace off-the-shelf can provide 20-30% greater knee ligament protection. (2) And it’s cheaper than a custom brace!

Unloader brace

This type of brace is shaped in a way that helps reduce the load on one compartment of the knee. It works by pushing and pulling the thigh or the shin, sort of “opening” the injured side of the knee joint. This promotes healing and reduces pain.

It’s usually custom-made.

An unloader brace is great for (3):

  • Recovering after meniscus surgery.
  • During the initial steps of rehabilitation.
  • People with knee osteoarthritis in one compartment of the knee.
  • People with healthy ligaments.

If you have a ligament injury, a rehabilitative or functional brace will be a better option.

How to choose the right size of knee brace

A brace that’s too small for you can cut off your circulation or even aggravate pain. And, if it’s too loose, it will be useless. It’s imperative that you choose the right size.

If you can try your brace on before buying, you should be able to slide two fingers under the straps or the sleeve.

If you can do this easily, choose a smaller size. If you can’t do it, choose a bigger one.

But, if you’re going to buy it online, check the size chart of the manufacturer. Most brands have their own sizing, so a large sleeve in one brand can be a medium or an extra-large sleeve in another.

FAQs

Do knee braces help with knee pain?

Yes, some people may feel knee pain relief while wearing the brace. But, the knee support won’t solve the cause of the pain. It’s meant to be an aid during the treatment.

Is it OK to wear a knee brace all day?

There’s nothing wrong with wearing it all day. But, most knee braces are meant for certain activities, like walking or playing sports.

For a knee surgery brace, wear it according to the instructions of your doctor.

Are knee braces good or bad?

Knee braces can be good for people with ligament issues or during knee rehabilitation. But, while they’re not “bad” per se, they may be excessive for people with mild knee pain.

Consult with your doctor if you’re not sure whether you’ll benefit from a knee support or not.

Can a knee support make it worse?

It shouldn’t. To avoid this, make sure to choose the right type of brace according to your needs. Also, double-check the size before buying.

Conclusion: How does a knee brace work?

A knee brace protects and supports the knee in different ways. This will depend on the type of brace, your needs, and what your doctor considers best for you.

Some people may need one for playing sports to prevent ligament injuries or after surgery to help the knee joint heal.

But, wearing a knee brace is only one part of the recovery process. It won’t replace muscle strength or joint mobility.

The main goal is not having to wear one at all!

Resources

  1. Paluska, S A, and D B McKeag. “Knee braces: current evidence and clinical recommendations for their use.” American family physician vol. 61,2 (2000): 411-8, 423-4
  2. Mortaza, Niyousha et al. “The effects of a prophylactic knee brace and two neoprene knee sleeves on the performance of healthy athletes: a crossover randomized controlled trial.” PloS one vol. 7,11 (2012): e50110. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050110
  3. Kalra, Mayank et al. “The effect of unloader knee braces on medial meniscal strain.” Prosthetics and orthotics international vol. 43,2 (2019): 132-139. doi:10.1177/0309364618798173