The knee joint is a weight bearing joint that is involved in many types of movements, such as walking, running, jumping, pivoting, kneeling and rising from a sitting position. The cartilage in between the upper thigh bone and the lower leg bone acts as a shock absorber during these activities, preventing bone-to-bone friction. In addition, a synovial membrane produces synovial fluid, which provides lubrication in the joint, facilitating smooth movements.
Overuse of the knee joint and misalignment of the bones cause degenerative changes on the cartilage and the bones. With age, sports injuries and increasing body weight, arthritis of the knee develops, and this is usually found in middle-aged people and in the elderly. In fact, almost half of all adults are likely to experience knee pain in their lifetime secondary to osteoarthritis.
Osteoarthritis of the knee is usually treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy. Those who do not respond to these conservative measures because of severe damage to the cartilage and bones are usually advised to undergo joint repair or knee replacement.
The Role of the Knee Brace for Osteoarthritis
Many people suffer from osteoarthritis not only because of the overuse of their knee joint, but also because of faulty knee mechanics that lead to slight internal rotation of the bones. This means that instead of the bones being well aligned with the body weight gravitating towards the center of each joint, a slight inward turning occurs so that the weight is borne in the inner side of one or both knees. This aggravates the degenerative changes in the cartilage, causing inflammation and pain. Obesity further increases the stress on the joint thus it is strongly related to knee pain.
Knee braces are devices that are worn around the knee to support and push the joint in the opposite direction resulting in better alignment of bones and reduction of stress on the joint. Its function therefore is to unload the pressure and stress on the knee joint, thus decreasing damage and pain.
A knee brace may be prescribed by an orthopedic surgeon and designed for fit by an orthotist. It may also be bought off-the-shelf at different sizes and designs. It is made of both rigid and flexible materials such as plastic, metal and rubber for support and padding. It helps a patient stand and move with more confidence and support. However, it is not a mode of treatment to cure the arthritis, but a form of additional relief for pain and limitation of movement.
An additional benefit of using knee braces is that they can delay or avoid the need for knee surgery. They are non-invasive and can improve the quality of one’s life, with lesser need for pain medications.
Risks and Disadvantages of Using Knee Braces for Osteoarthritis
Not all people with knee arthritis can use knee braces, especially the morbidly obese. The first few months of use may prove to be difficult, since knee braces can cause skin irritation, joint swelling and discomfort because of the bulk and weight of the device.
A few people may also be reluctant to wear them for cosmetic reasons, citing they may look old and disabled with such devices.
There are some reports relating that there is no significant decrease in pain and stiffness in the joint with the use of braces compared to taking pain medications alone.
In general studies about the advantages and disadvantages of using knee braces are mixed in their results. It is important to emphasize the need for some lifestyle changes to decrease weight, to continue exercises with a physical therapist as well as take anti-inflammatory drugs in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee.
WebMD, “Knee Braces Ease Osteoarthritis Pain" accessed 1/24/11
Mayo Clinic, “Knee Braces for Osteoarthritis" accessed 1/24/11