You know both sleeves and braces help the knee, but which one do you need for your knee pain? What are the differences between a knee sleeve vs brace?
First, the main difference between braces and knee sleeves is their level of support and protection.
The design of most braces helps protect the knee joint from previous or future injury.
Whereas knee sleeves’ goal is to provide compression. This doesn’t protect the knee joint from external forces but can enhance the way you move. This, in turn, can reduce some knee symptoms.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- The 5 main differences between braces and sleeves.
- The types of knee braces and their benefits.
- As well as the types of knee sleeves and their benefits.
- Which one is better for your current needs.
Knee brace vs Knee sleeve – 5 differences
- Protect the knee.
- Tend to be bulkier than sleeves.
- They’re best for moderate to severe injuries. For example, ligament/meniscus tears or after knee surgery.
- There are several types of knee braces – hinged, unloader, functional, prophylactic, rehabilitative…
- Some braces include sleeves.
- Provide support, but not as much as a brace.
- Are more discreet than braces.
- Sleeves are best for managing mild knee pain and swelling or to provide some support to the joint.
- There’s not as much variety as in braces – some types include hinged, strapped, open or closed patella.
- Some sleeves may have removable hinges.
Types of knee braces and their benefits
They are bulky, with a metal or plastic frame designed to protect the knee from further injury. They also have straps to secure the brace firmly around the knee.
The straps of this brace are longer than others – this gives room to the dressing around the knee.
Some rehabilitative braces have a dial that restricts the movement of the knee joint. This is usually recommended after surgery to protect the ligament while it’s healing.
Your doctor will probably give you a rehabilitative brace according to your needs. During the consult, they’ll give you individual instructions on how to wear it and for how long.
Once your doctor considers you can bear weight on your leg safely, they’ll probably change your brace to a less restrictive one or a sleeve.
Functional braces are also known as “derotational braces.” They keep the knee stable during weight-bearing activities like walking or running. (1)
- An unstable knee.
- A ligament injury – like an ACL tear.
- A mild or moderate knee injury – like a meniscus tear.
They also have hinges and straps, which protect the knee joint and help keep it stable.
Research shows that a prophylactic knee brace bought off the shelf can provide 20 to 30% extra ligament protection. (3) This is great news! A custom-made knee brace can be expensive.
However, the brace itself won’t replace proper training techniques and strength. It will be an addition to the skills you already have.
This type of knee brace is designed in a way that helps reduce the load in one compartment of the knee. That’s why they’re best suited for people with a meniscus injury or unicompartmental arthritis.
People with ligament issues won’t benefit from this type of knee braces. (4)
It works by pushing or pulling one side of the knee to open up the joint on the injured side. It’s usually custom-made.
Knee sleeves: types and benefits
Most knee sleeves are made of neoprene, a compression material that retains heat and increases the blood flow to the area.
You slip your foot into the sleeve and slide it up to your leg until it’s over your knee joint, or wrap it around your knee with a strap.
There are several types of this knee support:
This is the typical knee sleeve. The compression provides support and some stability without restricting the range of motion.
That’s why they’re common in people with arthritis or weightlifting athletes.
This type of knee support has a hole for the kneecap. This relieves some of the pressure in that area and can reduce kneecap pain.
This is a good option for people with:
- Patellar tendonitis.
- Patella tracking issues.
- Pain around the kneecap.
These are knee compression sleeves with removable hinges to provide additional knee support if needed.
This knee support is ideal for people with mild knee stability issues and for daily use.
Sleeves with straps
These braces help customize the level of compression and stability you want. They can also help to keep your kneecap in place if you have a patella tracking disorder.
Benefits of compression sleeves
The neoprene and the knee compression it provides has several benefits (5):
- Keeps the joint warm, which can produce pain relief.
- Can reduce swelling after working out.
- Provides a sense of stability for people with arthritis or tendonitis.
- Increases the blood flow in the area, which can enhance recovery.
However, talk to a healthcare professional before wearing them if you have high blood pressure or other medical issues.
Which is better for me: a knee brace or a knee sleeve?
A knee brace or knee sleeve won’t do much if you’re not doing rehabilitation as well.
Make sure to talk with your physical therapist or doctor about your rehabilitation plan and how knee braces and knee sleeves fit into it.
However, here’s a rough guide on how to know which one your doctor may recommend, according to your issue:
- If you need to restrict your range of motion after surgery or a severe injury, you’ll probably need a rehabilitative brace.
- If you have mild or moderate knee pain, try wearing a knee sleeve for compression.
- If you need some help managing your patellar problems, look for a knee sleeve with an open patella or a patella tracking strap.
- If you sprained a knee ligament and need additional stability while it heals, you’ll probably need a functional brace.
- But if you want to help prevent a knee injury from happening during sports, go for a prophylactic knee brace.
- If you’re afraid of moving your knee and want to improve your confidence and sensation of safety, try a knee sleeve.
- And if you want some additional support during your weightlifting training, a knee sleeve is also a great option.
What’s the difference between a knee brace and a knee sleeve?
A brace is bulkier than a sleeve and it’s usually worn after moderate or severe knee injuries. A compression sleeve is best for mild knee injuries.
Are knee sleeves worth it?
Yes, if your injury doesn’t involve severe ligament issues.
They’re also worth it as a piece of supportive equipment in the gym. But don’t let it become a crutch – you must be able to perform without the sleeve.
If you’re not sure if a sleeve is the best option for you, consult with your doctor first.
Is it OK to wear a knee compression sleeve all day?
It’s safe to wear it all day if it’s the right size. However, most compression sleeves are meant to be worn during specific moments of the day – exercising, walking, during certain lifts.
If you feel like you have to wear a knee compression sleeve all day to relieve your symptoms, please go to the doctor to check what’s going on.
Conclusion: knee brace vs knee sleeve
Yes, both are knee supports, but:
- Sleeves are best for providing support to the knee without compromising its movement.
- Braces are best for protecting or helping the healing process of the joint after an injury or surgery.
There are several types of knee braces and compression sleeves. Pharmacies and sports stores sell most of them. You can even get one online.
But, to determine which one you need, please check with a healthcare professional. They will know what type of support you need and will teach you how to wear it safely.
- Yang, Xiong-Gang et al. “The effect of knee bracing on the knee function and stability following anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Orthopaedics & traumatology, surgery & research : OTSR vol. 105,6 (2019): 1107-1114. doi:10.1016/j.otsr.2019.04.015
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Chuang, Shih-Hung et al. “Effect of knee sleeve on static and dynamic balance in patients with knee osteoarthritis.” The Kaohsiung journal of medical sciences vol. 23,8 (2007): 405-11. doi:10.1016/S0257-5655(07)70004-4