The Best Knee Brace for Pain

Knee-Pain

Knee pain can be caused by all sorts of injuries and conditions. Regardless, pain often limits your ability to do the activities you love. There are lots of knee braces out there that can help relieve pain and provide support for your knee. With so many options, it can be hard to know which is right for your situation. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know to help you find the best knee brace for pain relief.

This information is not intended to replace the guidance of your doctor or other healthcare professional.

What You Need to Know When Choosing a Knee Brace for Pain

Cause, Location, and Severity of Pain

Different types of knee braces can help to treat different causes of knee pain. Therefore, it’s important to understand the nature and severity of your knee problem before choosing a brace. A good first step is to have a healthcare professional diagnose your knee if you’re experiencing pain from injury, or unusual soreness or stiffness for a few weeks or longer.

If you haven’t had your knee pain diagnosed yet, in the meantime it might be helpful to read our Complete Guide to Knee Pain. It covers various knee pain causes and symptoms, common injuries, and possible treatment options.

For more in-depth information on knee pain in specific areas of the joint, check our guides to knee pain on the front of your joint, the inside of your joint, and the outside of your joint.

If you know the cause of your knee pain and are exploring treatment options, read on to learn how a knee brace can help.

Why and How Knee Braces Relieve Pain

In general, knee braces provide support and stability to weakened or damaged structures in the knee. This reduces stress on the structures and the joint as a whole, which can help alleviate pain, promote healing, and prevent further damage or reinjury. As a result, you can be more physically active and work on increasing your knee strength and mobility, which may also help with pain relief.

Knee braces typically work to relieve pain in the following ways:

  • Controlling movement and range of motion 
  • Enhancing knee stability
  • Maintaining joint alignment
  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Redistributing force away from certain areas of the joint
  • Reducing pressure or absorbing body weight
  • Assisting knee extension

Depending on your knee problem, you’ll need a specific type of brace that assists you in one or more of the ways listed above.

Types of Knee Brace for Pain Relief

Listed below are the most common types of knee braces and how they work to relieve pain.

Non-Hinged Knee Braces

Knee Straps

Patellar knee straps help to reduce strain in the patellar tendon (located at the front of the knee below the knee cap). The strap applies pressure to the patellar tendon when tightened. This changes the angle at which the tendon inserts into the patella and decreases the tendon’s length, which decreases strain on the tendon1 to alleviate pain.

Compression Sleeves

Knee compression sleeves are usually made of elastic cotton or neoprene. The compression and warmth the garment provides can help decrease inflammation and keep your knee from feeling stiff and painful.

Hinged Knee Braces

Hinged knee braces offer more support than knee straps and compression sleeves. As a result, they are usually worn when the knee is unstable or vulnerable to more damage. This is often the case with ligament or meniscus injuries or during surgery recovery. Certain types of hinged brace can also help manage pain caused by knee osteoarthritis.

Person wearing a hinged knee brace.

Hinged braces can help relieve pain by stabilizing the knee, limiting its range of motion, controlling the speed of leg movements, or promoting a certain alignment of the joint. They utilize different designs and materials to offer varying levels of support. Soft hinged braces offer less support while rigid hinged braces offer more support.

Outlined below are the different types of hinged braces based on their function.

Prophylactic Knee Braces

The purpose of a prophylactic brace is not to relieve pain. They are usually worn by athletes in contact sports to prevent or reduce the severity of knee injuries.4

Functional Knee Braces

Functional braces are designed to reduce knee instability and protect and support the knee joint while recovering from injury.4 In these situations, the knee is in a vulnerable state. The brace helps to stabilize the joint and prevent movements that will cause further damage and pain. 

Some types of functional knee braces are useful immediately following reconstructive knee surgery. They provide a lot of support and stability to the joint while allowing for protected motion. For example, ACL rehabilitative braces will often limit the degree to which you can straighten your knee. This helps prevent accidental damage to the surgically repaired ligament.

Unloader Knee Braces

Unloader knee braces are designed to address osteoarthritis specifically, but can also be used to help treat meniscus tears. These braces take pressure away from damaged areas of the knee. In turn, this helps reduce pain and preserve the integrity of the joint.

Osteoarthritis (OA) can affect the cartilage in any of the three knee compartments where bones meet – the medial (inside) tibiofemoral compartment, the lateral (outside) tibiofemoral compartment, or the patellofemoral compartment (under the kneecap). If you’re unfamiliar with the different types of OA, check out our Guide to Severe Knee Arthritis.

Diagram showing the three compartments of the knee.

Most unloader braces apply a force to one side of the knee. This shifts pressure away from the damaged compartment that is causing your pain. These braces are known as uni-compartment offloaders because they can only unload one tibiofemoral compartment at a time.

Diagram showing the effect of a uni-compartment offloader knee brace for pain relief.

Tri-compartment unloaders are a new type of unloader brace. They reduce joint forces in all three knee compartments at once, alleviating pain across the entire joint. This type of brace can improve pain and function during the treatment of various knee injuries and chronic conditions.

Diagram showing the effect of a tri-compartment unloader knee brace for pain relief.

Learn more about unloader braces here – Top 5 Unloader Knee Braces.

Choosing a Knee Brace for Pain Relief

Below is a general guide on which type of knee brace is best in different situations. It all depends on your injury or condition and what stage of rehabilitation you’re in.

Patellar Knee Pain

Pain in the front of the knee is often caused by overuse injuries involving the patellar tendon and/or kneecap, such as patellar tendinopathy (jumper’s knee), patellar tendonitis, or patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee).

Patellar Tendinopathy and Tendonitis

If patellar tendinopathy or tendonitis is causing you pain and limiting your physical activity, then a patellar knee strap is probably your best bracing option. Research shows that they can significantly reduce pain during exercise and sporting activities.9 Patellar straps are usually very light and small, so once you put it on and start moving you’ll probably forget it’s even there.

Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

The underlying cause of patellofemoral pain syndrome is thought to be abnormal movement of the patella (knee cap), also known as patellar maltracking.18 A patellar stabilizer brace (or patellar realignment brace) is a type of functional brace counters patellar maltracking. The brace stabilizes and controls the position of the knee cap to make sure that it is aligned properly throughout your range of motion. By correcting patellar alignment, the brace can help to relieve the symptoms of PFPS. Patellar stabilizers tend to work best when combined with a physical therapy program that includes muscle strengthening and stretching.19,20 Alternatively, similar improvements in pain can be achieved by wearing a knee compression sleeve in combination with strengthening exercises.10

Mild Knee Pain, Inflammation, or Bursitis

If you have knee pain associated with a mild ligament sprain, muscle strain, meniscus tear, or mild arthritis, then you may just need a little extra support from a compression sleeve to help reduce pain and swelling during and after exercise. Compression sleeves can also work well to manage pain and inflammation caused by bursitis.

Ligament Injuries

Compression Sleeves

Knee compression sleeves may be able to help manage pain and inflammation in less severe ligament injuries or the final stages of rehabilitation as you become more active. However, compression sleeves do not provide enough support to protect the knee after severe ligament tears.

Functional Knee Braces

If you have a severely torn or ruptured ligament, a functional knee brace that provides more support and stability may be the best option for you. While research on functional braces has produced mixed results, many users report subjective improvements in knee pain and increased confidence during exercise.8 During surgery rehabilitation, functional braces are not absolutely necessary but may help to reduce pain and avoid complications during the early post-operative period.7

There are all sorts of functional knee braces out there for different ligament injuries:

  • LCL or MCL braces help protect the medial and/or lateral collateral ligaments by preventing the knee from buckling inward or outward.
  • ACL braces help protect the anterior cruciate ligament by preventing twisting and hyperextension.
  • PCL braces help to reduce unwanted forces on the posterior cruciate ligament.

Ligament injuries can cause chronic instability and joint degeneration if they are not treated properly. Modern-day functional braces can help provide protection and improve rehabilitation outcomes,4 helping you avoid chronic knee pain down the road. However, you can also regain full knee function without the use of a functional brace,7 so it is not a requirement for a proper recovery.

Tri-compartment Unloader Knee Brace

An alternative to conventional functional braces for ligament injuries is a tri-compartment unloader brace. It absorbs body weight when the knee bends and assists knee extension when you straighten your leg. This type of brace acts as a shock absorption system for your knee, reducing pressure and pain across the entire joint and increasing stability so you can safely return to weight-bearing activities following a ligament injury. Since the brace also assists the quadricep muscles as you straighten your leg, it can help you to regain muscle strength during rehabilitation exercises while limiting strain on ligaments. As you regain stability and strength, the assistance can be gradually reduced and then turned off. This leaves you with a functional knee brace that can still stabilize the knee and protect you from re-injury.

Meniscus Injuries

Unloader knee braces can reduce meniscal strain5 and help to relieve pain from meniscus tears. Each knee has a medial and lateral meniscus. If only one meniscus is torn, then a uni-compartment offloader brace may help by shifting pressure away from the injured side. However, if both menisci are torn, then a tri-compartment unloader brace is likely a better choice because it is designed to reduce pressure and friction across the entire joint. This helps reduce pain and avoid further cartilage damage while you build and regain your strength.

Read more about how to choose a knee brace for meniscus tears – The Best Knee Brace for Meniscus Tears.

Mild Knee Osteoarthritis

There is evidence to suggest that compression sleeves may relieve pain and improve function in those with knee osteoarthritis.2 If you have mild knee pain from OA, wearing a sleeve can be a good choice. It may help you stay active while avoiding the worst of the pain, inflammation, and stiffness. While a sleeve may not be as effective as an unloader knee brace at improving pain and function in those with OA, it is likely better than wearing no brace at all.3 It may help your knee feel better during activities of daily living or when exercising.

Osteoarthritis in One Knee Compartment

For those with moderate to severe OA in one tibiofemoral compartment of the knee, a uni-compartment offloader brace is a cost-effective and minimally invasive treatment that can reduce pain, improve function, and potentially delay the progression of the disease.6 Keep in mind that wearing this type of brace may increase stress on other areas of your knee joint. Over time, this could cause pain, damage, and the progression of OA in those compartments.

Osteoarthritis in Multiple Compartments

Over half of patients have OA in the patellofemoral compartment or multiple knee compartments.11-14 In these cases, a uni-compartment offloader will likely not relieve pain. Those with patellofemoral or multi-compartmental OA may benefit more from a tri-compartment unloader, because it is the only bracing solution that can unload all three knee compartments to relieve pain across the entire joint.

Infographic showing the best type of unloader knee brace for pain from each type of osteoarthritis.

If you’re curious to learn more about the differences between uni-compartment and tri-compartment unloaders, check out these detailed comparisons of some of the best unloader braces on the market:

Tri-compartment Unloader – A New Solution for Knee Pain

You may have noticed that tri-compartment unloader (TCU) knee braces were mentioned several times in the section above as a solution for various causes of knee pain. TCUs are a relatively recent breakthrough in bracing technology. They are designed to reduce forces in all three knee compartments to improve pain, mobility, and function in a way that no other functional brace can.

Levitation 2 – Quite Possibly the Best Knee Brace for Pain

Spring Loaded Technology’s Levitation 2 is the world’s first tri-compartment unloader. Levitation’s defining feature is its patented spring loaded hinge. The liquid spring absorbs bodyweight when you bend your knee, then returns that energy to assist with leg extension. This allows the brace to reduce pressure and pain throughout the entire knee while powering your leg muscles to help restore strength. Research has shown that Levitation can reduce joint contact forces in all three knee compartments by over 40% during a deep knee bend,15 which is equivalent to a level that would be achieved by losing 45 pounds of body weight.16

Labelled diagram showing Spring Loaded's Levitation knee brace.

While still useful for pain relief in certain situations, conventional knee braces cannot provide the same degree of unloading. This is because they lack a knee extension assist mechanism. As a result, Levitation can be better suited to help relieve pain, increase stability and mobility, and enhance leg strength for those with knee osteoarthritis, ligament injuries, meniscus damage, or recovering from knee surgery.

Clinical Benefits of Levitation

Preliminary evidence shows that Levitation is very effective at reducing knee pain in those with osteoarthritis.17 In a systematic survey of Levitation brace users with knee OA, 95% reported significantly reduced pain since using the brace. Of those who were regularly using pain medications before Levitation, 47% were able to reduce or eliminate their use of the medications. Additionally, 85% experience mobility improvements and 86% reported an improvement in their quality of life. Another significant finding was that 70% of Levitation users were able to increase their physical activity levels by an average of 8 hours per week. This is important since exercise and weight loss are considered excellent non-surgical treatments for reducing OA symptoms.

Learn More

Tri-compartment unloading is becoming recognized as a proven treatment option for knee pain from injury or osteoarthritis. Ask your doctor about tri-compartment unloader knee braces and whether they may be right for you.

To learn more about how the Levitation knee brace works, check out the video below.

If you think Levitation may be the best solution for your knee pain, please feel free to contact a bracing specialist by clicking the button below.

For more details on Levitation and to see what customers have to say about the brace, click here.

We hope this information helped narrow down your search for the best knee brace for pain relief. If you have more questions, our complete guide to choosing a knee brace might be helpful. Before making a final decision, we recommend you have a conversation with your doctor or other healthcare professional to get their advice on which knee brace is right for you.

References

  1. Lavagnino, M., Arnoczky, S. P., Dodds, J., Elvin, N. (2011). Infrapatellar straps Decrease patellar Tendon strain at the site of The Jumper’s Knee Lesion. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 3(3), 296-302.
  2. Bryk, F. F., Jesus, J.F., Fukuda, T.Y., Moreira, E.G., Marcondes, F.B., Santos, M.G. (2011) Immediate effect of the elastic knee sleeve use on individuals with osteoarthritis. Rev Bras Reumatol. 2011 Sep-Oct;51(5):440-6.
  3. Chew, K. T., Lew, H. L., Date, E., & Fredericson, M. (2007). Current evidence and clinical applications of therapeutic knee braces. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 86(8), 678-686.
  4. Hewlett, J., & Kenney, J. (2019). Innovations in functional and rehabilitative knee bracing. Annals of Translational Medicine, 7(S7).
  5. Kalra, M., Bakker, R., Tomescu, S. S., Polak, A. M., Nicholls, M., & Chandrashekar, N. (2019). The effect of unloader knee braces on medial meniscal strain. Prosthetics & Orthotics International, 43(2), 132-139.
  6. Richard Steadman, J., Briggs, K. K., Pomeroy, S. M., & Wijdicks, C. A. (2014). Current state of unloading braces for knee osteoarthritis. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy, 24(1), 42-50.
  7. Brandsson, S., Faxen, E., Kartus, J., Eriksson, B.I., Karlsson, J. (2002). Is a knee brace advantageous after anterior cruciate ligament surgery? Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 11(2), 110-114.
  8. Paluska, S. A., McKeag, D. B. (2000). Knee braces: current evidence and clinical recommendations for their use. American Family Physician, 61(2), 411-418.
  9. De Vries, A., Zwerver, J., Diercks, R., Tak, I., Van Berkel, S., Van Cingel, R., Van der Worp, H., Van den Akker-Scheek, I. (2015). Effect of patellar strap and sports tape on pain in patellar tendinopathy: A randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 26(10), 1217-1224.
  10. Lun, V. M., Wiley, J. P., Meeuwisse, W. H., & Yanagawa, T. L. (2005). Effectiveness of patellar bracing for treatment of patellofemoral pain syndrome. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 15(4), 235-240.
  11. Duncan, R. C., Hay, E. M., Saklatvala, J., & Croft, P. R. (2006). Prevalence of radiographic osteoarthritis – it all depends on your point of view. Rheumatology, 45(6), 757–760.
  12. McAlindon, T., Zhang, Y., Hannan, M., Naimark, A., Weissman, B., Castelli, W., & Felson, D. (1996). Are risk factors for patellofemoral and tibiofemoral knee osteoarthritis different?. J Rheumatol, 23(2), 332-337.
  13. Stefanik, J. J., Guermazi, A., Roemer, F.W., et al. (2016). Changes in patellofemoral and tibiofemoral joint cartilage damage and bone marrow lesions over 7 years: the Multicenter Osteoarthritis Study. Osteoarthritis Cartilage, 24(7), 1160-1166.
  14. Lankhorst, N.E., Damen, J., Oei, E.H, et al. (2017). Incidence, prevalence, natural course and prognosis of patellofemoral osteoarthritis: the Cohort Hip and Cohort Knee study. Osteoarthritis Cartilage, 25(5), 647-653.
  15. McGibbon, C.A., Brandon, S., Bishop, E.L., Cowper-Smith, C.D., and Biden, E. (2020). Biomechanical study of a tricompartmental unloader brace for patellofemoral or multicompartment knee osteoarthritis. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 8.
  16. Budarick, A.R., MacKeil, B. E., Fitzgerald, S., and Cowper-Smith, C.D. (2020). Design evaluation of a novel multicompartment unloader knee brace. Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, 142(1).
  17. Budarick, A.R., Bishop, E.L., and Cowper-Smith, C.D. (2020). Preliminary evaluation of a new orthotic for multicompartment knee osteoarthritis: a retrospective pilot survey. Journal of Prosthetics and Orthotics. Under Peer Review.
  18. Smith, T. O., Drew, B. T., Meek, T. H., & Clark, A. B. (2015). Knee orthoses for treating patellofemoral pain syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
  19. Dutton, R. A., Khadavi, M. J., & Fredericson, M. (2014). Update on Rehabilitation of Patellofemoral Pain. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 13(3), 172–178.
  20. Petersen, W., Ellermann, A., Rembitzki, I. V., Scheffler, S., Herbort, M., Brüggemann, G. P., … Liebau, C. (2016). Evaluating the potential synergistic benefit of a realignment brace on patients receiving exercise therapy for patellofemoral pain syndrome: a randomized clinical trial. Archives of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery, 136(7), 975–982.