Do Over-the-Counter Knee Braces Help?

Hand holding knee in brace

August 18, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Craig Van Dien, M.D.

Knee pain from injuries or arthritis isn’t one-size-fits-all. That’s also true for knee braces that might help reduce pain and prevent further injury to the affected joint, according to Craig Van Dien, M.D., who specializes in sports and musculoskeletal medicine at the Center for Sports and Spine Medicine at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute.

Whether you walk into a drugstore or browse online, you’re likely to find a range of knee braces for sale ranging from $10 to $100 or more. These over-the-counter devices run the gamut from soft to rigid:

  • “Stabilizers” to limit movement of the kneecap
  • “Sleeves” that compress and support the joint
  • “Unloaders” that shift the knee’s weight-bearing force away from affected sides

Choosing the right brace for you—if a brace would actually provide any benefit—depends greatly on the cause of your knee pain, Dr. Van Dien says. Bracing is also considered a short-term stop-gap method to stabilize the joint, but not a long-term fix.

“In a general sense, a brace might aid with temporary structural support to the knee. Doing this might help reduce your pain. With less pain, you may be more functional,” he says. “But there are braces you can buy over the counter that may be inappropriate for your knee issue and consequently not offer much benefit. You may actually need a prescription brace.”

Understanding What’s Causing Your Knee Pain

Just because it’s easy to buy an over-the-counter brace doesn’t mean you should self-diagnose your knee problem, Dr. Van Dien says. Pinpointing your condition is key to addressing the underlying cause of knee pain or deterioration.

Your doctor may use a variety of techniques and tests to accurately diagnose your knee problem, ranging from a physical exam to imaging scans and more.

“The biggest piece of advice I could give is, prior to buying a brace, ask a musculoskeletal sports rehabilitation doctor or your primary care doctor for input on what’s actually going on,” Dr. Van Dien says. “Knee braces can be costly, and it’s best to have a clear diagnosis before you buy one because the brace may offer no benefit.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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