A knee brace (or knee splint) can be used to relieve and heal a wide range of common causes of knee pain. Whether you are suffering from a case of patellar tendonitis, a torn meniscus or a torn ACL, you will find a great choice for pain relief below. Knee braces are also sometimes also called knee supports, although we prefer to reserve this term for a particular sub category, which we discuss below.
However, knee splints are not all the same – they come in a vast number of styles, types and sizes. To make the best choice, there are a number of important questions to consider, which we outline below.
What type of brace is best for the condition I want to treat?
There are basically five types of knee brace that can be purchased “off the shelf”- hinged braces, knee stabilizers/supports, knee sleeves, knee straps, patella stabilizers and offloading knee braces. As an alternative to getting a knee brace “off the shelf”, you can also have one custom made.
Hinged Knee Braces
Hinged knee braces will offer the maximum lateral knee support (protection from tearing or overstretching of ligaments on either the inside or outside of the knee). They will also allow the patient to maintain the most natural knee movement possible. Hinged braces are most useful for severe knee instability problems such as those caused by torn knee ligaments or meniscus tear injuries. These types of injuries are unfortunately relatively common in contact sports or in sports requiring sharp changes in direction or speed of running.
A knee stabilizer will be an appropriate choice to treat mild knee injuries such as moderate knee sprains (when the ligament has been overstretched and not torn). These braces don’t have hinges but are instead equipped with metal or plastic stays or metal springs along the sides to provide some lateral knee stability (although not as much as you would get from a hinged knee brace).
If you don’t have a severe knee instability problem but would just like to walk, run or play sports with increased confidence in your knee, you may find that a simple knee support or stabilizer is best suited for your needs.
Knee sleeves come without either hinges or metal/plastic stays or springs, so they do not provide any lateral knee support. They are an appropriate choice if you are looking for warmth and compression to improve circulation and treat a mild knee injury. They should also be considered if you wish to reduce the risk of a knee injury while walking or running or if you are participating in an athletic event.
Knee straps are used to apply pressure to specific areas of the knee joint. For example, if you are suffering from patellar tendinitis, you can use a knee strap to apply pressure to the patellar tendon situated just below your patella or knee cap. Alternatively you can wear a knee strap above your knee to apply pressure to your iliotibial band and reduce the friction as it moves across the bony protusion on your outer knee.
Patella stabilizers (also called patella braces) are designed to help prevent patella instability problems like subluxation and/or tilting. The main feature of these braces is usually a buttress around the knee cap that helps keep it properly seated in the knee’s trochlear groove. These braces can sometimes include other features as well, such as metal stays or springs to provide lateral joint stability.
Unloader Knee Braces
Unloader knee braces are useful in treating cases of knee osteoarthritis when the cartilage between the thigh and shin bones has deteriorated to the point at which the bones are making direct contact with each other. The result of this is considerable knee pain when walking or placing weight on the knee. An unloader brace is designed to shift the point of contact between these two bones from an area of cartilage deterioration to one with healthier cartilage, reducing pain in the process.
Using an unloader knee brace will help to defer the time at which a knee replacement operation may be needed. In fact it may actually eliminate the need for a knee replacement by deferring the time when one may be needed beyond the patient’s remaining life expectancy.
As an alternative to an off the shelf brace, custom knee braces are also available, albeit at a significantly higher cost. Although these braces are not among those available on this site, they may be the appropriate choice if the medical professional treating the patient feels that his or her knee injury is untypical of those for which off the shelf braces are intended.
What type of knee brace closure should I get?
There are essentially two closure styles available – slip on and wraparound. The former is put on (as the name implies) by inserting your foot through the opening of the brace and pulling it up over your leg. This type of brace is normally sized since the fit must be precisely determined in order to get the best support.
Wraparound braces, on the other hand, can be placed either in front of or behind the knee. You then adjust this brace using its Velcro straps. This type of knee splint is well suited for individuals with compromised manual dexterity or strength. Individuals with certain neurological conditions are examples.
Wraparound (also called front closure) knee braces are also a good choice for individuals with unusual knee or leg shapes. They normally use Velcro enclosures that provide the versatility needed to adapt to such shapes.
Should my brace have an open or closed patella?
A closed patella brace will give your kneecap the same support as provided to the rest of your knee.
Open patella knee braces relieve the pressure on the knee cap and are generally more comfortable. They include knee splints with buttresses that provide maximum support for the patella to assist with patella tracking problems. The greater comfort level of these braces can be a great help with patient compliance (making it easier for the patient to wear the brace as much as he/she needs to for it to be effective).
What size of brace does the patient need?
Sizes can be measured in various ways but the correct size is essential if the brace is to function as intended. If the brace is too large, it may not provide the degree of compression and/or support the patient needs. On the other hand, if it is too tight and uncomfortable, the patient may not be able to wear it for extended periods. This would then compromise its therapeutic effectiveness.
One good rule of thumb if you find yourself between sizes is to use the larger size.