Will A Knee Brace Help A Torn Meniscus? | When It Can And When It Can’t

wearing a black knee brace to help a torn meniscus

You can find a knee brace practically anywhere. It’s a safe and cheap solution for managing knee pain. But, will a knee brace help a torn meniscus?

Knee braces can help particularly with severe tears – they protect the knee and help it heal faster. But, they may not be necessary when there’s little to no pain and swelling.

In any case, here are a few guidelines to help you figure out whether you need a knee brace with your torn meniscus.

Other things I’ll walk you through include:

  • Types of knee braces and what to look for.
  • Other things to do so you can return to your activities safely.
  • General treatments for meniscus tears.

Let’s get to it!

Can a knee brace help a torn meniscus?

A knee brace may help if…

  • You have a severe tear.
  • You have a torn ligament as well.
  • You can’t bear weight on the injured leg.
  • You’re recovering from meniscal repair surgery.

In these cases, a knee brace will provide stability, compression, and load reduction. These benefits will help protect the injury from further damage.

Your doctor may recommend wearing a hinged brace or an unloader brace (more about them later).

Some knee braces can also restrict knee range of motion which can be helpful in a few cases.

For example, while recovering from surgery or in severe tears with ligament injuries.

A knee brace won’t help much if…

  • You have a degenerative tear with mild or no symptoms.
  • Your ligaments are okay.
  • You can walk on the injured leg without much pain and swelling.
  • Your doctor thinks it’s safe for you to walk without a brace.

A knee brace might be excessive here. But, if you have mild swelling or want extra stability, you can instead opt for a knee sleeve.

Knee sleeves also provide some stability while reducing pain and swelling. But, they’re not as bulky or restrictive.

If you’re not sure whether you need a knee brace or a knee sleeve, seek the advice of an expert. Like, your doctor or physical therapist, for instance.

Types of knee braces for meniscus tears

The types of knee braces depend on either their design or their intended use:

Design of the brace

Hinged knee braces

Here, the brace has a hinge on each side of the knee to keep it stable and protected. Some braces are bulkier than others, depending on what you’ll need them for.

These are great for meniscus tears with ligament injuries. These compound injuries are very common in sports.

Rigid hinged knee braces are usually used after a meniscus repair surgery. Their purpose is to support and protect the knee while it heals.

Others are more flexible, like knee sleeves but with hinges. Patients generally use this after a meniscus tear with a mild ligament sprain.

Depending on the brand and model of the brace, the hinged brace could include:

Unloader knee braces

The design of this type of brace is usually custom-made. It’s meant to reduce the load on the knee in case of a meniscus tear.

An unloader brace is great for:

  • Recovering after surgical repair of the meniscus.
  • During the initial steps of rehabilitation.
  • Pain due to knee osteoarthritis in one compartment of the knee.

But, they’re not recommended for people with ligament issues – a hinged brace is a better option for them. (1)

There are two types of unloader braces:

Uni-compartment unloader brace

It’s the most common type of unloader. (2)

It works by pulling or pushing the knee to one side or the other. This, in turn, allievates the pressure on the injured meniscus.

Tri-compartment unloader brace

This is a recent model of unloader that can unload all three knee compartments simultaneously.

It works with a spring hinge system that decompresses the joint while it bends over 30°. This, in turn, reduces the contact forces inside the joint. (2)

Intended use of the brace

Prophylactic braces

These help prevent or reduce the risk of knee injuries, mostly in contact sports. (3) They’re hinged to protect knee ligaments.

Some athletes wear them during practice instead of games. They do this in hopes of avoiding any limitation in their performance. (3)

Custom-made braces tend to be costly. So, if you’re planning on wearing it to prevent injuries during sports, an off-the-shelf brace can be a good option.

There are some guidelines on what to look for in a knee brace below.

Functional/Rehabilitative braces

These provide stability for unstable knees, usually due to a previous ACL injury. (3)

More recently, functional knee braces have been recommended following reconstructive surgery to reduce strain in an ACL graft.Paluska, 2000

These can restrict the range of motion of the knee. So, they’re also used to help protect and control knee movement during rehabilitation. (3)

3 benefits of wearing a knee brace with a torn meniscus

1) Less swelling and pain

The compression effect from the brace can help promote blood flow to and around the joint. This, then, helps reduce swelling and pain.

On the other hand, an unloader brace reduces pressure on your meniscus injury. This helps relieve symptoms and ease pain.

And with less pain, you’re also more likely to adhere to your rehabilitation program!

2) Move your knee joint safely

The brace stabilizes the knee, protecting it from further injury.

Also, the same compression that reduces pain and swelling provides a sense of safety. This will help you progress in your physical therapy program as well.

3) Help the meniscus tear heal

Some braces can restrict flexion as well. This is imperative after certain surgeries so the ligaments can heal properly.
Your doctor can change the degrees of restriction according to your recovery process.

Conversely, an unloader brace can help the tear heal by reducing pressure.

A brace can also aid in your recovery by increasing your confidence – which is crucial!

Some people fear moving their knees or doing certain exercises. But, this is a central part of the rehabilitation process.

A brace may help you feel more confident. And, in turn, make you better able to do your therapy exercises at the beginning of the recovery process.

Eventually, you’ll be able to do them without the garment.

What to look for in a knee brace?

Size

Some brands offer one size only. Also, your doctor may recommend a custom-made brace.

If you’re planning on buying a brace off-the-shelf, make sure it’s your size because:

  • A small brace can be very uncomfortable. It can also cause tingling and other symptoms on your legs.
  • A brace that’s too loose won’t provide enough stability, support, and protection.

Purpose

The design, material, and characteristics of the brace will depend on what you want it for:

Knee brace for playing sports

Consider a brace that’s:

  • Light-weight.
  • Breathable.
  • Machine-washable.
  • With adjustable straps.
  • Stable, but that also allows movement so you don’t compromise your performance.

Make sure you’re not allergic to the brace’s material to avoid skin rashes.

Knee brace post-surgery

You may need one that’s:

  • Customized.
  • With compressive support.
  • Sturdy.
  • Hinged or unloader, depending on the surgery and your doctor’s recommendations.

Understand your meniscus injury

What is a meniscus?

A meniscus is a C-shaped cartilage inside your knee that primarily works as a shock absorber. We have two menisci on each knee joint – the inner and outer meniscus.

They prevent your thigh bone from rubbing against your shin bone. It also providing stability on the knee joint.

What causes a meniscus tear?

There are two ways this can happen:

Knee injury

We call these type of tears “acute tears” as they’re usually caused in (4):

  • Contact sports.
  • Activities with sudden changes of direction, like tennis or basketball.
  • Twisting the knee.

It’s also common to see some kind of ligament damage in this type of meniscus tear, commonly the ACL.

Degenerative tears

The aging process can make our meniscus easier to tear. This type of tear is common in people over 40 years old and/or with knee osteoarthritis. (4)

The good news is that this type of meniscus tear tends to be asymptomatic. (5)

Symptoms of a torn meniscus

Initial symptoms include (4):

  • Knee pain and swelling that increases during the 2-3 days after the injury.
  • Difficulty straightening the knee.
  • Feeling like the knee is locked up.
  • Clicking or popping of the knee that wasn’t there before the moment of injury.
  • Knee instability.

How to diagnose a meniscus tear

Your doctor will perform some movement tests on your affected knee and will ask for an MRI.

The MRI will show:

  • Location, size, and pattern of the meniscus tear.
  • Whether there are other knee structures affected.

That information combined with your physical examination and personal goals will help you and your healthcare providers design a treatment plan that fits your needs.

Treatment for a torn meniscus

Knee braces are only one piece of the whole treatment plan.

A brace can help reduce the pressure on the joint and protect from further injury. But, it won’t heal the tear itself or recondition your muscles – doing physical therapy and healthy habits will do that for you.

Apart from wearing a knee brace, these are other things you may have to do to heal your meniscus tear:

Go to physical therapy

Physical therapy is the cornerstone of your meniscal tear treatment. A therapist can help you:

  • Reduce the pain and swelling.
  • Enhance your recovery process.
  • Prepare you for surgery and help you recover from it.
  • Reduce your need for a knee brace by strengthening your muscles.

Also, research suggests that:

  • In most people, physical therapy offers the same benefits as meniscus surgery, without the side effects. (4, 6)
  • Meniscus surgery could predispose you to knee osteoarthritis. (4)
  • 12 weeks of exercises guided by a therapist can provide the same results as an arthroscopic meniscectomy, without the side effects. (6)
  • 12 weeks of physical therapy combined with 6 weeks of analgesics can improve knee pain and function in degenerative tears. (7)

So, if your type of meniscal tear allows you to, consider doing at least 3 months of strength training with a physical therapist before going to surgery.

Find a physical therapist here!

Make sure you sleep enough

Sleep is the most effective recovery tool we have as humans. Research shows that:

  • Our cells regenerate faster while we’re sleeping than when we’re awake.
  • Lack of sleep can delay healing, even if your nutrition is on point.
  • Lack of sleep can also cause several other health issues.

7-9 hours of sleep each night can help you heal faster.

Eat nutritious foods

Our energy requirements may increase from 15% up to 50% during the healing process, depending on the severity of the injury. (8)

And a lack of energy can also slow the recovery process and exacerbate muscle loss.

To prevent this, make sure to (8):

  • Eat “as many colors as possible” – plenty of vegetables and fruits.
  • Add one or two extra protein servings per day.
  • Drink 2 liters of water daily.
  • Avoid skipping meals. You could try smoothies to get some extra calories if you’re not hungry.
  • Talk with a registered dietitian for individualized recommendations.

Manage stress

This is easier said than done, I know.

But, for example, this study found that the stress from college examination can delay the healing time by ~2 days.

And another study found that the stress from fighting with your significant other can delay your healing process by 40%.

If you’re finding it hard to cope with stress, please seek help from a mental health professional. It can literally help you heal your meniscal tear faster!

Injections and medications

Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can reduce pain and inflammation.

Corticosteroid injections can also help reduce pain for 2-4 weeks according to research. (9)

The downside of these treatments is that they won’t heal the tear itself. They can, however, help you reduce pain and swelling so you can do your therapy exercises easier.

This will help you focus on strengthening your leg and recovering the stability without the pain bothering you.

Surgery in severe cases

Certain meniscal tears require surgery, such as (4):

  • Tears in the white zone of the meniscus.
  • Meniscal tears associated with ACL tears.
  • Frequent locking of the knee.
  • Severe pain despite physical therapy, medication, and injections.

Sometimes your doctor and physical therapist may consider it’s in your best interest to undergo surgery.

 The success of the surgery – whether it’s meniscectomy, meniscal repair, or trimming – depends on:

  • What caused the tear in the first place – the treatment won’t be the same if it’s acute or degenerative.
  • The place and size of the tear.
  • Your age and lifestyle.

Undergoing any surgical treatment is a very personal decision. Talk with your surgeon and physical therapist about realistic outcomes according to your situation.

FAQs

How long do you wear a knee brace for a torn meniscus?

This will depend on the severity of your injury and the treatment. For mild injuries, a few weeks may be enough. For severe injuries with surgical treatment, months.

What is the best knee brace for a torn meniscus?

This will depend on the severity of your injury, its treatment, and your lifestyle. In general:

  • Severe tears combined with ligament tears may need a hinged brace.
  • For tears with healthy ligaments, an unloader brace may be enough.
  • For mild tears with little to no symptoms, a knee brace may be excessive – a knee sleeve would be a better idea.

Your doctor will know which brace is best for your situation.

Is compression good for torn meniscus?

Yes, as it can reduce the pain and swelling. Keep an eye on the intensity of the compression, though – if it’s excessive, it may cause tingling down the leg and other symptoms.

Will walking on a torn meniscus make it worse?

No, if it’s recommended by your healthcare provider.

Conclusion: Will a knee brace help a meniscus tear?

Yes, in certain situations – like if you have severe symptoms or just underwent surgery – but the keyword here is “help.”

A knee brace can help you feel safer, but it’s one piece of the whole treatment.

You have to address any underlying muscle weakness or stability issue that may be a potential cause -or consequence- of a torn meniscus. A brace won’t do that for you.

Consult with your doctor or physical therapist on whether you need a knee brace and which one!

Resources

  1. 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
  2. McGibbon, Chris A et al. “Biomechanical Study of a Tricompartmental Unloader Brace for Patellofemoral or Multicompartment Knee Osteoarthritis.” Frontiers in bioengineering and biotechnology vol. 8 604860. 28 Jan. 2021, doi:10.3389/fbioe.2020.604860
  3. 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
  4. Raj MA, Bubnis MA. Knee Meniscal Tears. [Updated 2020 Jul 19]. StatPearls. Retrieved on June 16, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431067/
  5. Englund, Martin et al. “Meniscal tear in knees without surgery and the development of radiographic osteoarthritis among middle-aged and elderly persons: The Multicenter Osteoarthritis Study.” Arthritis and rheumatism vol. 60,3 (2009): 831-9. doi:10.1002/art.24383
  6. Kise, Nina Jullum et al. “Exercise therapy versus arthroscopic partial meniscectomy for degenerative meniscal tear in middle aged patients: randomised controlled trial with two year follow-up.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 354 i3740. 20 Jul. 2016, doi:10.1136/bmj.i3740
  7. Neogi, Devdatta Suhas et al. “Role of nonoperative treatment in managing degenerative tears of the medial meniscus posterior root.” Journal of orthopaedics and traumatology : official journal of the Italian Society of Orthopaedics and Traumatology vol. 14,3 (2013): 193-9. doi:10.1007/s10195-013-0234-2
  8. Tipton, Kevin D. “Nutritional Support for Exercise-Induced Injuries.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 45 Suppl 1 (2015): S93-104. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0398-4
  9. Babu, Jacob et al. “Diagnosis and Management of Meniscal Injury.” Rhode Island medical journal (2013) vol. 99,10 27-30. 4 Oct. 2016. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27706275/