Osteoarthritis is the wear-and-tear type of arthritis that commonly affects the knees of older people. The bottom of the thighbone has two large knobs, and osteoarthritis can affect one of the knob surfaces more than the other. This unequal damage can cause or worsen a malalignment that may make your stance look knock-kneed or bowlegged.
As the damage progresses, this malalignment worsens. A knee brace can take pressure off the part of your joint most affected by osteoarthritis and help relieve pain. If your knee feels like it might buckle when you put weight on it, a knee brace can also help you stand and move around with more confidence.
For osteoarthritis, a knee brace is usually combined with other treatments — such as medication and physical therapy.
Risks of knee braces may include:
- Discomfort wearing the brace. A knee brace may feel heavy, bulky and hot at first.
- Skin irritation or swelling. The skin under the brace may become red and irritated if your knee brace fits poorly. Some people also experience swelling around the joint.
- Lack of benefit. Studies of knee braces for people with osteoarthritis have been limited, and results have been mixed. Some people experience no benefit. Others report diminished pain and increased function.
Discuss your interest in knee braces with your doctor. Together you can decide whether a knee brace is likely to help your problem and how likely you may be to actually wear it regularly.
If you decide to try a knee brace, your doctor will probably need to write a prescription for it and refer you an orthotist — a health professional who designs, builds and fits braces and other devices to improve function in people with orthopedic problems.
Custom-made knee braces can cost more than $1,500, so you might want to check with your health insurance provider first to see whether these types of devices are covered by your policy.
Some types of knee braces are ready-made in several sizes. Some designs allow you to adjust the pressure they apply to your knee, depending on how much support you need for different activities and at different times of day. If you find an off-the-shelf brace that fits you well, you may be able to take it home that day.
Custom knee braces are designed and built to fit your exact measurements. But it takes time to build a custom knee brace, so you may have to wait for a few weeks. When your custom brace is ready, the orthotist will check the fit before you take it home.
During your knee brace fitting
You may adjust to wearing a knee brace more quickly if you start with a good fit, which is the goal of working with an orthotist. During the fitting, the orthotist may:
- Examine your knee
- Ask about your history of knee arthritis and the symptoms that trouble you most
- Ask what activities you hope to increase by wearing a knee brace
- Ask you to walk a few paces to show how your knee functions
- Take several measurements of your leg to determine what size you need
- Discuss the pros and cons of off-the-shelf and custom braces
- Explain how knee brace designs differ from each other
- Have you try various knee braces to determine what style feels best and is easiest for you to use
After your knee brace fitting
With help from the orthotist, you'll learn how to put on and take off the knee brace and how to tell whether it needs adjustment. You may walk around to try out your brace.
Follow the orthotist's or your doctor's instructions about when to wear your knee brace. Some people wear their knee braces only during continuous activity, such as walking or playing certain sports. Other people find it beneficial to wear the brace most of the day.
Knee braces may help reduce osteoarthritis symptoms. Some evidence suggests knee braces can:
- Improve knee function. A knee brace may reduce pain you feel when going up stairs, when walking or during other routine activities. A knee brace may also make it possible to walk longer distances.
- Increase your confidence in your knee. Osteoarthritis can make you feel as if your knee is about to give out. As a result, you might automatically guard your knee and avoid putting weight on it. A knee brace may offer some stability and increase your confidence in your knee.