Every sport and active lifestyle takes a toll on people’s knees. If your joints are sore after your morning run or after a long day of walking around, you’re not alone. Knees can develop arthritis, have worn ligaments, or even get dislocated. Knee braces can do everything from reducing the risk of injury to support your knees and stop joint pain. They can also help you recover from surgery or serious injuries. Keep reading to learn more about different types of knee braces and how to keep your joints safe.
1. Do braces help treat knee pain, or do they just make the pain easier to live with?
‘Knee brace’ is a catch-all term for a lot of different devices. Depending on the type and severity of your injury, your doctor might assign any number of options. Even over the counter knee braces come in endless varieties that are designed to stabilize the joint, relieve pressure, or even help damaged ligaments do their job as they recover.
If you’re considering a knee brace because your joint has been damaged or because you’re experiencing pain, talk to your doctor about options that support overall healing, not just the status quo. If you want to make sure your knees stay strong despite constant activity, your doctor can recommend sports braces that reduce the risk of injury in the first place.
Different knee braces solve different problems.
There are five main types of knee braces. These are:
• hinged braces
• customized knee braces
• compression sleeves
• small bands and straps
• wraparound knee braces
Hinged and customized knee braces are most commonly used to help your knees recover after surgery or serious injuries. The firm structural supports and hinged joints take pressure off the ligaments and bones so you can return to light movement as quickly as possible. They also help you start physical therapy before the muscles start to atrophy.
The remaining three options — compression sleeves, bands, and wraparound braces — are designed for pain relief and palliative adjustments. They provide support to equalize the weight and pressure different parts of your knee experience. Depending on the exact style, they can also push different parts of the joint into alignment without the risk of injury. Bands and straps can also help you during running and jumping by both alleviating pain and preventing jumper’s knee.
Use knee braces to mitigate daily pain or soreness.
If you’re not a training athlete or in the hospital for a knee injury, a doctor might not have the opportunity to preemptively recommend a knee brace before something goes wrong. If you’re worried about your knee pain but aren’t at the point of visiting a doctor, a knee brace can provide the support you need and give you answers.
Lots of people wear knee braces during the day to day course of their jobs and personal lives. Whether you work in an industrial setting and do a lot of lifting or your job has you moving across a storeroom floor or up and down stairs, knee braces are designed to help give your joints support and stave off wear. Try a support wraparound or compression brace to see if it reduces joint pain. That can give you the information you need to go see a doctor for more serious joint conditions before they require surgery.
2. Because knee braces are a form of treatment, they’re a qualifying medical expense under your FSA or HSA.
Depending on the knee brace that’s the best fit for your joint’s condition, the cost can vary from an affordable blip on your weekly spending to a serious financial consideration. Fortunately, knee braces are considered a qualifying medical expense under your FSA or HSA-enabled health insurance plans. While that doesn’t completely remove the cost, it does mean you can get a get a break on the taxes.
What are FSAs and HSAs?
As a general rule, PPO insurance plans have Flexible Spending Accounts, or FSAs. These accounts let you set aside a predetermined amount of your annual salary each month into a tax-free account for your estimated medical expenses. As long as the medical device or expense is ‘qualified,’ or on a list of accepted purchases, you don’t have to pay income tax on the amount of your salary equal to the cost of the knee brace. Depending on your tax bracket, that can be at least a ten percent ‘discount.’
Health Savings Accounts, or HSAs, operate similarly. If you have a high deductible health insurance plan, you are often eligible to set aside money for future qualified medical expenses, and you don’t have to pay income tax on the amount you set aside. The mechanisms and restrictions for each type of account are different, but either option makes knee braces more affordable.
What medical expenses qualify?
Check a list of the current year’s FSA qualified expenses before making any purchases. These regularly updated lists tell you which expenses are eligible for reimbursement as regulations change. Whether you’re purchasing an over the counter knee brace or a custom device with your doctor’s assistance, have confirmation before you start the reimbursement process. Some expenses are considered ‘potentially eligible,’ and those need confirmation from your doctor in the form of a letter of medical necessity or other documentation.
If you have an HSA, the eligible expenses are controlled by the IRS. Check the list and consider consulting with an account before withdrawing the funds from your HSA. HSAs are investment accounts, so they require more self-management.
3. How do you know which knee brace is right for you?
Not every knee brace is a good fit for every circumstance. Some can overcorrect, and others won’t provide enough support to keep your knees safe from injuries. Research can help you narrow down the basic type you need based on severity. But trial and error can be a costly, painful, or delayed process that doesn’t get you the relief you need.
Talk to a doctor.
A doctor can help talk you through general knee pain and ask specific questions to recommend the best knee brace for your circumstances. Compression sleeves, for example, act as a great support for knees with arthritis and mild knee pain. Wraparound braces also help with mild knee pain, but they are designed to help with joint instability and dislocation. Both of these general types are sold next to each other on store shelves to treat pain, but they work for different underlying causes.
A doctor can also recognize when your knees need more serious support. They can recommend you to a specialist, start the process of building a custom knee brace, or even help you decide if surgery is a viable option. The sooner you and your doctor recognize severe joint degeneration or injuries, the better.
Know why you’re getting one.
When you’re selecting a knee brace, it’s not enough to know the underlying cause that’s leading to joint discomfort. It’s also important to know what you want the end result to be. Compression and unstructured braces provide support to reduce the risks of wear and injuries, but they don’t help repair your knees. At best, they provide a reprieve so your knee can start the healing process on its own.
But more structure braces can partially take over the function of your ligaments to correct joint motion or help the joint recover from surgery and inflammation. Don’t just talk to your doctor about what might be causing your knee pain. Discuss your long-term options, too.
4. You’ve bought a knee brace. Now what?
Once you’ve decided on wearing a knee brace and you’ve purchased the model that you think is the best fit, there’s still a period of adjustment.
What are the signs the knee brace needs adjustment?
Your knee brace might not feel comfortable at the beginning. But only you can tell if that’s because you’re just adjusting to it or because the brace is a bad fit. If the brace is bulky or irritating, try to wait out the adjustment period. But if your skin is irritated or the rigid materials cause discomfort as they press into the joint, it could be a bad fit. This is especially common with rigid wraparound braces.
Custom braces may also require a trial and error period of several adjustments as your doctor tries to find the best fit for you.
How often should you wear it?
You might need to wear your knee brace every day, especially if you have a taxing job or training schedule. Alternatively, a band or strap-based brace might need to be worn only during runs. Follow your doctor’s recommendations and consult with them before increasing or decreasing the time during which you wear it. If your brace provides structural support more than anything else, then your knees may be feeling better only because of the brace itself.
However, always make sure there’s a period of time every day when you can take your knee brace off unless advised otherwise by a doctor. Braces can create sores or aggravate your skin if they’re left on too long.
How do you know if a preventative knee brace is working?
Knee braces don’t provide an instant cure or even instant pain relief. But you should be able to sense some degree of benefit. Take note of any reduced pain, feeling of support, or increased mobility.
If you’re suffering from knee pain, acting earlier is always better for your overall joint health. Try an over the counter compression brace or talk to your doctor about your specific symptoms.