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Braces and supports

Unloader braces for knee arthritis

In some people, arthritis may affect mostly the inside of the knee. This is because the inside of the knee often bears more of a person's weight than the outside of the knee.

A special brace called an "unloader brace" may help take some of the pressure off the inside of your knee when you are standing. A different "unloader brace" can be used for people with arthritis on the outside of the knee. It works using the same idea to offload to injured side of the knee.

An unloader brace does not cure your arthritis, but it may help relieve symptoms such as knee pain or buckling when you are moving around. It "unloads" (takes some of the weight of) the side of the knee that is having symptoms. People who wish to delay having knee-replacement surgery may want to try an unloader brace if the pain is primarily on one side of the knee.

There are two types of unloader braces:

  • A custom-fitted unloader brace can be made by someone called an orthotist. You would need a prescription from your doctor. These braces often cost up to $1,000, and insurance may not pay for these.
  • Unloader braces may be bought "off the shelf" in different sizes. You may or may not need a prescription for these. They cost a few hundred dollars.

It's unclear how well an unloader brace would work for you. Some people say they have fewer symptoms when they use them. But some medical studies have found that these braces may not relieve many symptoms of knee arthritis.

Knee braces for sports-type injuries

There are many different types of knee braces that are made to either prevent injury or allow knee injury patients to return to sports. Mostly, these braces are for ligament injuries.

As with the braces used to treat arthritis that are described above, these braces may be custom-fitted or bought off the shelf.

Knee braces for sports are made to:

  • Provide support for athletes who are at high risk of injuring their collateral ligaments (medial collateral ligament [MCL] or lateral collateral ligament [LCL]). A football lineman is one such athlete.
  • Support the knee during sports in people who already have a weakened anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
  • Prevent injury during sports in people who have had surgery to repair their ACL.
  • Limit the range of motion of the knee during recovery after knee surgery.

Health care providers do not fully agree on whether athletes need to use a knee brace during rough sports (such as football) or after the surgery to prevent of knee injuries.

Ask your orthopedic surgeon if any of these braces may help you.

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Review Date: 8/9/2018

Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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