Osteoarthritis in your knees can bring your activity to a grinding halt. The cartilage tissue that lets your knee joints glide smoothly gets thinner and rougher over time with knee arthritis.
These changes to your joints cause pain and feelings of instability. You may find that a knee brace for osteoarthritis helps you keep moving, from playing the sports you love to going on a hike.
“The time to wear a knee brace is when you’re doing activities that typically would make your knee hurt,” says David C. Thut, MD, a Mass General Brigham orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist who cares for patients at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital. You shouldn’t wear a knee brace when sitting still or sleeping.
He also notes that you don’t have to wear a brace just because you have knee arthritis. You should only wear one if it decreases pain with activity and helps you move better.
While braces don’t keep knee arthritis from worsening, they can help reduce osteoarthritis knee pain. “You may find that braces are very comfortable for you,” says Dr. Thut, “or you may find that they don’t help a whole lot.”
You have to take some time to figure out which knee brace for osteoarthritis, if any, works for you. Your health care provider can help you understand which type best fits your needs if you have a knee injury or other knee condition.
In general, braces provide knee support for osteoarthritis and can reduce knee pain. Each type of knee brace for osteoarthritis works in different ways. Braces may apply compression (pressure) to your soft tissues, stabilize your knee, or redistribute your weight.
A compression sleeve is a stretchy brace that fits snugly over your knee. The brace hugs the area around your knee to help reduce swelling and increase comfort. It can also help you feel more stable by improving your awareness of your knee’s location in space (proprioception).
Some compression sleeves have a hole in the front. “Those can be helpful if you have more arthritis in the kneecap joint (the front of your knee),” explains Dr. Thut. “They help line up the kneecap in the groove it’s supposed to sit in.”
Some compression sleeves also have adjustable straps. This feature allows you to customize the tension and fit, and help the brace to stay up. The right fit provides compression without feeling too tight or causing swelling below your knee.
A hinged knee brace is similar to a compression sleeve, but also has a short hinge on one or both sides. The hinge, which may be rubber or metal, moves with the bending and straightening of your knee.
“Hinged braces give some compression and help with proprioception, but they also lend a little side-to-side stability,” says Dr. Thut. “They can help you feel steadier and help decrease osteoarthritis knee pain.”
An unloader knee brace is a longer and more rigid hinged brace. It’s a custom or semi-custom knee brace from a specialist called an orthotist. You might find standard unloader braces online. However, Dr. Thut says a customized fit, tension, and hinge settings ensure the brace works correctly for your knee.
“Unloader braces are mostly for people who have arthritis on the medial (inner) side of the knee,” says Dr. Thut. “When you have medial arthritis, the brace helps force more of your weight to be born through the lateral (outer) side of the knee and less through the worn-out, medial side.” An unloader brace may also help with osteoarthritis on the outer side of your knee.
Dr. Thut recommends this type of knee support for severe pain on the inner side of your knee (the medial knee). He highlights that unloader knee braces have the most research and rationale supporting their use.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The best knee brace for osteoarthritis depends on your individual diagnosis and body type.
You can easily (and somewhat affordably) find compression knee braces at drugstores, pharmacies, and online. If you’re considering a more expensive, complex brace, Dr. Thut recommends talking with your health care provider first.
The right brace will relieve osteoarthritis knee pain during activity and not slide down with movement. It also won’t irritate your skin or cause swelling below your knee.
While a brace can give your knee support for osteoarthritis, it’s not a replacement for other treatments. “A knee brace is part of a conservative treatment program for arthritis,” says Dr. Thut.
Other things that help manage osteoarthritis knee pain include:
“Physical therapy has been shown to be the most effective nonsurgical treatment for osteoarthritis in many studies,” highlights Dr. Thut. “A brace should be something that you use in addition to doing physical therapy exercises and keeping your legs strong.”
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