Is It Time You Considered A Knee Brace For Your Osteoarthritic Knee Pain?
Check out some recommendations from Ossur, one of our partners in bracing, on how an Unloader brace could be the answer to reducing your knee pain:
What Does A Knee Brace Do?
Nearly one in five Americans over age 45 have Osteoarthritis (OA), a degenerative disease in which the cartilage that protects the ends of bones breaks down over time, particularly in weight-bearing joints like the knees and hips.
OA, which is considered the leading cause of disability among adults, is a progressive condition, usually worsening over time from mild, to moderate and ultimately to severe. In some cases, people with severe knee OA find walking extremely painful as their affected joints become little more than "bone-on-bone."
If, like millions of other Americans you have been diagnosed with knee OA, you may already be dealing with some of the disease's most common symptoms, including knee pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints.
Meanwhile, your doctor may have recommended you address your condition by eating healthier, managing your weight, and exercising more. But how?
If you are experiencing persistent knee pain, stiffness, or joint weakness, it may be time to talk with your doctor about additional treatments for osteoarthritis knee pain, including whether a knee brace might help your OA symptoms.
What Does A Knee Brace Do?
Although there are no known cures for OA, doctors often recommend knee braces, which can provide stability, support and pain relief for people dealing with moderate to severe knee OA.
One note of caution: not all knee braces are considered equally effective. In particular, a type of brace known as "offloader," or sometimes called "unloader" braces have been especially recommended for people with OA knee pain.
One leading brace for knee OA is the Unloader One® from Össur. This comfortable, lightweight brace has been specifically designed to "unload" the joint, with adjustable, dual Dynamic Force System straps that provide three points of leverage to ensure optimal unloading in the joint.
Do Unloader Knee Braces Work?
Researchers have conducted studies for over two decades to see if unloader bracing helps people with OA knee pain. The Unloader One has been studied more extensively than any other brace, and has been clinically proven to ease OA patients' knee pain, improve their functionality, and reduce their use of pain medication.
One study, published in 2006 reported that "in some patients, bracing significantly reduces pain, increases function, and reduces excessive loading to the damaged compartment." The researchers used several health and functionality surveys, imaging studies and anatomical as well as biomechanical evaluations to assess unloader bracing technology before concluding that these braces "have been shown to load share and thus reduce the stresses in the degenerated medial compartment of the knee."
Another study, conducted in 2012 found that patients with knee OA who used an unloader brace experienced significant decreases in their levels of pain and disability, as well as an improved ability to engage in various daily activities, leading to increases in their overall physical health.
The authors of a 2018 meta-analysis who evaluated 14 different studies about unloader bracing and knee OA concluded that knee braces for OA could "…significantly improve a patient's quality of life and potentially delay the need for surgery." One researcher whose work was cited summed it up in his recommendation: "(unloader) bracing should be fully used before joint realignment or replacement surgery is considered... (which) could have a positive impact on health care costs and the economic productivity and quality of life of the affected individuals."
In addition, globally respected professional medical societies, including the Osteoarthritis Research Association International (OARSI), the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) and the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) all recommend knee braces among their non-pharmacologic treatment options for patients with knee OA. OARSI’s guidelines in particular note that knee bracing had been shown to be “effective in decreasing pain, joint stiffness and drug dosage,” and contributing to “improved physical function.”
Debunking 'Urban Legends' About Bracing
Once upon a time, the clinical community may have had questions about the benefits of wearing a knee brace for OA, but these opinions have evolved. This was largely based on the mistaken assumption that wearing a brace could weaken the muscles and that rest and inactivity would be more beneficial for inflamed joints.
But while resting may be an appropriate course of action after a traumatic joint injury, when it comes to a chronic condition like knee OA, "staying off it" can be an old idea. More recent research has reversed that original perspective, including one study that debunked the idea that OA patients' muscle strength was diminished due to wearing a brace.
Moreover, additional research has shown that exercise can be very beneficial for people with OA. In fact, doctors now generally recommend physical activity as "core treatment," along with exercise and strength training, for people with OA knee pain. This is based on studies that have demonstrated exercise's distinct advantages in decreasing pain and stiffness, strengthening joints, improving overall function, and even boosting a person's general mood and attitude.
A whitepaper that was published by a panel of over 25 North American OA treatment experts recommended that OA patients increase their physical activity to reduce weight and increase strength, as well as expressing their collective conviction that offloader braces could beneficially protect affected joints from mechanical overload during physical activity.
Are There Complications With Knee Bracing?
Not everyone with OA embraces knee braces. Researchers have occasionally noted that some patients experience what they call “minor complications,” which are primarily related to skin chafing and irritation. This is usually because of an improperly fitted brace or not following proper break-in procedures, such as gradually increasing wear time over the course of 6-8 weeks. If you ever experience complications while wearing a brace, you may want to alert your health care team so they can make the appropriate adjustments to ensure proper fit and function of your unloader brace.
For the most part, complications do not seem to be too severe, and are far outweighed by the advantages of unloader bracing. A survey of 735 OA patients found that the majority experienced relief of their OA symptoms and improvement in their daily activities after wearing an Unloader One brace. Most people also said they would recommend the Unloader One to their friends.
Is an Unloader One Brace the Right Solution for You?
If you have mild to severe knee OA, you may ultimately find that, like the subjects in this study, your overall quality of life can improve as a result of wearing an Unloader One brace.
The exploration is now in your hands. Consider this just the beginning of your investigation. And as always, stay in close communication with your doctor and healthcare team so that together, you can explore your treatment options and determine if an Unloader One® osteoarthritis brace might be right for you.