Brace Yourself for Less Knee Pain

Do you have knee osteoarthritis? Wearing a knee brace could ease pain and boost function, according to one review.

An older woman grips her knee in pain, wondering if knee support or a brace will help.

Updated on June 12, 2023.

If osteoarthritis (OA) is stopping you in your tracks, consider trying a knee brace for pain. A 2021 systematic review published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders found that the devices can help reduce pain and improve activity level and quality of life

Knee braces work by realigning the joint to reduce the weight load on damaged areas. The analysis looked at valgus braces, which are sometimes called unloader braces. They protect the medial (inner) side of the knee, the part most often affected by OA. Nearly 70 percent of the total joint load is received by the medial compartment during walking. This unbalanced loading, along with injuries, misalignment, and excess weight, can all wear away the cushioning in this side of the knee, leading to pain. There are additional types of braces that can ease pressure on other areas of the knee, particularly under the kneecap. 

In the review, researchers looked at 24 studies including 579 participants with knee pain or knee arthritis, with an average age of 57. Some of the studies compared treatment using a valgus knee brace to not wearing any type of brace or correcting device (orthosis). Others looked at valgus braces versus other types of orthoses, such as shoe inserts. The review also looked at the effectiveness of knee brace usage over different time intervals: 

  • Short term: less than three months
  • Moderate term: three to six months
  • Long term: six months or more

In all three scenarios, the knee valgus brace had positive effects, though the researchers noted that more long-term studies were needed to confirm these results.

In studies where the braces were used alone, patients saw moderate to significant improvements in both their OA pain and activity level. And in studies that compared the valgus knee brace with another type of orthosis, the brace was comparable in reducing pain and improving knee function and physical activity. For many people, knee braces make it possible to walk farther, with less pain. 

Experts point out, though, that to really get results, you have to wear the brace consistently. And for some people, the brace can cause issues that limit the amount of time that you are willing to wear it. Across the studies, a subset of patients experienced skin irritation, poor fitting, blisters, discomfort, and pain. This led to a reduction in the amount of time spent in the brace for some, and for others, it caused them to stop using the brace altogether. Even so, the review determined that the knee valgus brace could be an effective intervention for reducing pain and improving activity levels, as long as compliance remained high. 

If you think a knee brace may be helpful for your OA pain, ask your healthcare provider (HCP). The HCP or an orthotist (a specialist who makes and fits braces) can find the best brace for your knee problem and show you how to use it. Braces are usually made of hard plastic or metal for support, with rubber and foam for cushioning. You can buy some off-the-shelf, while others can be custom-made to fit you.

Article sources open article sources

Alfatafta H, Onchonga D, Alfatafta M, et al. Effect of using knee valgus brace on pain and activity level over different time intervals among patients with medial knee OA: systematic review. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2021;22(1).
Haladik JA, Vasileff WK, Peltz CD, et al. Bracing improves clinical outcomes but does not affect the medial knee joint space in osteoarthritic patients during gait. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 2014;22(11):2715–20.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Orthotist and Prosthetist. Accessed on March 30, 2023.

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