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How Helpful are Knee Braces?

Knee braces are used for a wide variety of problems and conditions, and are available in two basic types: functional knee braces and prophylactic knee braces. Functional knee braces are designed to substitute for damaged ligaments, as for a patient with an AOL tear wearing one to allow certain activities without surgery. Prophylactic knee braces are used to prevent knee injuries and are worn by athletes in high-risk sports to minimize the risk of knee injury.

But do they help?

Do functional and prophylactic knee braces help? Let’s examine both.

Functional knee braces certainly aren’t as good as normal ligaments, although they can help patients with knee ligament injury. Studies show that the braces give some protection to the knee at low loads, but none of the studies prove that the functional knee braces help in situations of very high forces that occur very quickly.

Whether you should wear a functional knee brace for a ligament injury should involve a discussion with your doctor, because it depends upon which ligaments are injured, what sport you are participating in and what rehabilitation you have done or plan to do.

What is known is that physical therapy, including strengthening, is an important factor in returning to sports following a ligament injury. Therapy and rehabilitation are by far more important than a knee brace. Knee braces may help prevent re–injury to the knee, but it is likely a small factor, if any at all.

Prophylactic knee braces are designed to prevent knee injuries in healthy athletes. They became popular in the late 1970s when the use of prophylactic knee braces was tested in NFL players. Since that time, several studies have investigated the injury rates in athletes who wear prophylactic knee braces versus those who don’t wear a knee brace.The evidence that athletes wearing the braces have fewer injuries hasn’t been shown, because the difference is very small. Studies do show that athletes in football have a lower rate of medial collateral ligament injury when wearing a prophylactic knee brace, but the effect of that brace should be placed in perspective. Much more important factors in determining the likelihood of an injury include the sport played and the player’s position, conditioning and size. That said, there’s no harm in wearing the prophylactic knee brace as long as it’s properly fitted and worn; so proscribed, they have not been shown to increase rates of knee or ankle injuries.

Keep in mind that the braces studied are not the simple knee sleeves that can be purchased at a drug store. These knee braces need to be special ordered and prescribed by your physician. If you are interested in using a knee brace for competitive sports, you should contact your team doctor or your orthopaedic surgeon — he or she can prescribe the proper type of knee brace for you and ensure a proper fit.

For more information on the procedure or to make an appointment with a physician at Southern Orthopaedic Specialists, call (770) 953-6929.

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