Risks and Side Effects of Knee Braces

risks and benefits of knee braces
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Knee braces are quite popular and the most affordable way to reduce the pain you feel in your knees. They provide some additional support for a knee affected by an injury or during post-surgery treatment. Some people use them to prevent any injuries during running or other sports and many athletes can be seen wearing a knee brace, especially those practicing contact sports.  

There is a great variety of knee braces and they come in different colors and designs often depending on their function. Braces are made from materials such as foam, plastic, metal, elastic material, and straps in different combinations.  

While knee braces offer pain relief and additional support for the knee along with increased proprioception, they also may have some side effects. Mild ones can be skin irritation or discomfort, while the more serious risks include damage of the knee in case the improper brace was worn or it did not fit correctly. Hence, it is quite important to know what the different knee braces do and for which condition they are most suitable.  

The article below aims to give you the most important information about the popular types of knee braces along with their usage and possible side effects. Keep in mind, however, that you need to consult a doctor, who would be able to prescribe the right knee brace for your condition and give you advice on how long to wear it and how to properly fit it. 

What is a knee brace and when to use one? 

The knee brace is a specific contraption made to offer additional support to the knee and relieve pain. One of the most common types is made of elastic material that fits the knee and usually helps by offering additional compression. Quite often this type is referred to as knee sleeves.  

One very important function of knee braces, that is often not so stressed upon, is the additional proprioception they offer. This is the feedback that the brain gets about how each part of the body functions and whether additional attention should be paid. The knee brace sends proprioception feedback to the brain that there is some problem in the area of the knee and additional help is needed for its proper functioning. 

The different types of knee braces help with various knee conditions and some of them are used just for prevention of injuries, while others assist the healing of the knee after surgery.

Knee braces are divided into different groups following various criteria and their usage is determined upon the group they belong to. It is extremely important to use only braces that are personally recommended to you by your doctor and that fits you perfectly. Otherwise, the side effects might be quite serious.   

What are the main types of knee braces? 

There are various types of knee braces but according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, knee braces fit into three main categories:  

  1. Prophylactic braces – their aim is to reduce or prevent knee injuries. These braces are mainly popular among athletes in contact sports. 
  2. Functional braces – they are designed to offer more support and stability for unstable knees. 
  3. Rehabilitative braces – their purpose is to protect the knee and control the motion while it heals after a more severe injury or even surgery. 

In addition to these three types, there is also a fourth category, which is called patellofemoral braces. They are specifically designed to improve patellar tracking and relieve anterior knee pain. These are the braces used for the so-called runner’s knee and are perhaps the most popular type in terms of usage. 

Knee braces can also be divided into levels in accordance with the support they offer with Level 1 being the most flexible ones offering less support but a lot of movement and Level 3+ being those with the highest level of support. 

Another popular division is onto ready-made and custom-made knee braces. While the first one can be bought from any pharmacy, medical supplies store or online, the latter will be made personally for you after a thorough examination and a proper fitting session.  

Every type has its specific functions, which are basically determined by its name. Depending on your specific condition, you may need to wear them only for a certain period or you may need to replace one type with another. You might have to wear rehabilitative braces a few weeks after a knee surgery, for example, and then change them for functional braces.

No matter which type of braces you wear, keep in mind that all of them might have certain side effects. Below you can find examples of the benefits and dangers of wearing three of the most popular types of braces according to the recommendations posted by the American Family Physician. For a more detailed information, however, make sure to consult your doctor.   

Benefits and risk of prophylactic knee braces 

The benefits and side effects of prophylactic knee braces were initially researched among athletes, namely football players, wearing them. The results cannot be conclusive since there is much of a subjective nuance to evaluating their benefits. Some of the people wearing prophylactic knee braces may report significant improvement in their leg movement or much-reduced pain in the knee after exercise, while others might have not experienced any positive results.  

The main intention of the prophylactic knee braces worn by athletes is to protect the medial collateral ligament (MCL) during a valgus knee stress and to support the cruciate ligaments during a rotational stress. The benefits of wearing them entail less such injuries and increased proprioception. They also add support to ligaments. The possible risks of wearing such braces include more injuries as a result of overloading the MCL and a false sense of security given by the brace. Athletes wearing prophylactic knee braces may cause unintentional contact injuries to the other players. 

The overall conclusion is that the biggest risk prophylactic knee braces pose is the false feeling of protection they bring. Many people may be lured to train too extensively relying upon that their knees are well protected. It is essential to remember that even if they offer additional support and protection, knee braces cannot save you completely from any injury so make sure not to overload your knees and to proper stretch and warm up prior to any activity – running, playing football, etc.  

 Benefits and risks of functional knee braces 

Functional knee braces were initially introduced with the aim to reduce knee instability after an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Their purpose was also to decrease additional injuries during sports activities. Functional knee braces first became popular among athletes who suffer from knee instability and the sport they practice requires rapid direction changes, as it is in football. At a later stage, doctors started recommending them following reconstructive surgery involving an ACL graft.  

Some of the main benefits reported by people wearing functional knee braces include better knee stability, reduced pain, performance enhancement and confidence during athletics.

In case functional knee braces are worn to protect unstable knees that need surgery or to offer additional support after an ACL surgery they have certain benefits and risks. The advantages include decreased knee pain and better performance and higher confidence during training along with augmented knee proprioception.   

The risks associated with wearing a functional brace include the false sense of confidence after ACL reconstruction along with increased energy expenditure and decreased agility. Athletes may also cause injuries to their fellow players as a result of a contact with the brace they are wearing.  

 Benefits and risks of patellofemoral braces  

Patellofemoral braces were introduced as an accessible option to relieve anterior knee pain. Active people of all ages suffer from such pain that is usually caused by the displacement of the patellofemoral joint. By keeping the joint on place, the braces relieve pain and allow people to perform their activities without further limitations. Patellofemoral braces gained popularity quite easy because of their low cost, ease of use and availability. The studies conducted on their efficacy are inconclusive – some of them showing significant improvement in knee relief while others revealed no change whatsoever.  

Many users, however, do report that they sense significant relief in terms of pain and improvements in the movement after wearing patellofemoral braces. The benefits of the braces are mainly related to enhanced performance and confidence while performing sport. The results are due to the fact that this type of braces improve patellar tracking and decrease anterior pain syndromes.  

Some of the side effects are increased skin irritation and lesions. In addition to that, braces may be less effective than conservative therapy such as simple stretching and strengthening.  

 How to make sure that your brace fits well?  

In order to enhance the benefits and reduce the risks of wearing a knee brace, you need to make sure that it fits perfectly. Quite often an off-the-shelf brace can be successfully fitted but, in many cases, customization is required. The general rule is that the simpler the brace is the easier it fits. 

Some of the braces are made from elastic materials such as neoprene and are simply put as a sleeve over the knee. Hence, they are also referred to as knee sleeves. Even they, however, come in different sizes, so you need to find the right one for you.  

Those braces that have straps or wraps are also quite easy to fit. There are custom-made braces that have hinges or other contraptions, which are more specific. It is of paramount importance that you receive detailed instruction on how to properly put the brace so that you can avoid any negative effects or damages.  

  • Possible side effects of an improperly fitted brace 

Basically, there are two options – either your brace is too loose or too tight. In both cases, this may pose danger to your health. 

A brace that is too loose will not provide the necessary support and/or compression. It may slide down your leg and even pose a tripping danger. Even if it doesn’t fall, a loose brace will just leave you with the impression that your knee is protected while any movement may actually lead to worsening its condition or increasing the healing period post-surgery.  

If the brace is too tight, it may cut off circulation or pinch a nerve. Wearing a tight brace for too long may cause further problems besides simple discomfort. The result can be discoloration, swelling or numbness in your leg.  

  • Methods to check that your brace fits well 

Fitting your brace depends on its type. Nevertheless, there are two methods that can help you decide which is the best fit. 

Most of the braces come with a sizing chart. You can measure the circumference of your knee at the joint line and thus decide which brace is the right fit. Make sure to have your therapist or doctor also have a look once you put the brace on in order to confirm that it fits.  

The other way to make sure that your brace fits is by using your two fingers. Put the brace on and secure the straps. Check that your two fingers can fit between your leg and the strap. If they can hardly fit, it means your brace is too tight. If they are loose and there is space for a third finger, then the brace is too loose. Check all the straps of your brace using the two fingers method. 

In any case, it is better to have the brace inspected by a health professional who can confirm that you have secured it correctly and that it is a perfect fit.   

How to get a knee brace?  

If you believe that you have a knee condition that can benefit from wearing a knee brace, you should go and consult your doctor. They will be able to determine which brace is the right for you and give you recommendations whether to buy one off-the-shelf or a custom-made brace.  

Even if you want to just have additional support while running, it is still good to consult a health specialist. You can get useful information as to which brand or supplier is the best in addition to the health advice. 

Meantime you can also have a look at our selection of knee braces that can be used for different conditions.

You can also check the knee braces we offer and see how they can help you with your condition.

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