Following a knee injury, the road to recovery can be difficult, highlighted by a long series of intense physical therapy treatments. Whether the pain stems from a sports injury, arthritis, joint replacement, or another cause, physical therapy can help your patient's physical and mental well-being.
For the process to be as effective as possible for each unique injury, physical therapists are tasked with recommending the proper exercises and often the appropriate orthotic device.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Brace
When choosing a brace, patients and physical therapists have a lot to think about, including the reason for a brace in the first place. With some injuries, braces can be highly effective in helping patients gradually regain their range of motion. For example, after a patient tears an ACL, a brace can limit movement and reduce pain and inflammation.
Physical therapists typically recommend braces to patients with joint pain or those trying to prevent injuries playing contact sports. The most common use of braces, however, is during the recovery period.
While picking out a brace, physical therapists also need to determine the material of the brace based on the necessary range of motion, comfortability, durability, and skin integrity. There are multiple levels of protection to consider when choosing a knee brace, ranging from 1 to 3+.
Level 1 – While a level 1 brace offers the least amount of support and protection, it also has the most flexibility. They are typically the most viable option for mild pain relief while remaining active.
Level 2 – Offering slightly more protection than level 1, a level 2 brace isn't as flexible, but it still offers some range of motion. These braces provide mild knee support and are often used for instabilities in ligaments and tendonitis.
Level 3 – For very severe injuries and recoveries, level 3 braces (for example, a hinged knee brace) are heavier and offer the most support with limited movement. This heavy-duty choice is the best option for recovering from surgery.
Lastly, physical therapists should consider how often the brace needs to be worn. Is it an everyday brace? Is it a brace that needs to be worn for physical activity? Two of the more important aspects to monitor are comfortability and how the brace aligns with the related physical therapy exercises and required joint mobilization. If those functions are the same, a brace can go a long way in the road to recovery.
Determining the Perfect Fit
The only way you can benefit from a knee brace is if it fits correctly. So, fitting a patient for the right-sized brace is the most pivotal part of the process. Whether a brace is too loose or too tight, both can result in compounded injuries.
If the brace is too loose, it is not giving the proper support and can cause discomfort on the patient's skin. On the other hand, if the brace is too tight, it can cut off circulation to the leg, resulting in swelling and leg discoloration. The lack of circulation can pinch nerves, causing additional pain.
Therapists often place two fingers under the strap when tightening the brace onto the patient. The brace is too tight if the two fingers can't fit under the strap. However, if the therapist can fit more than two fingers under the strap, the brace is too loose. The two-finger method should be applied every time the patient puts the brace on.
Custom and hybrid braces are designed to meet the patient's needs perfectly. Adjusting the brace's padding and function can serve a similar function to the most effective physical therapy exercises.
How Orthotic Devices Can Help Injury Recovery
Choosing a well-fitted brace can help support an injury and aid in adequately aligning joints. The effects of a brace can benefit a patient in more than one way, especially when it comes to pain management. The following are advantages that a brace can add to physical therapy exercises:
Stabilizing the Joint – A well-fitted brace can go a long way in reducing pain while retaining joint stability. During the rehabilitation stage, discomfort in the injured area can be minimized with the proper bracing.
Load Distribution – Between joint alignment and load distribution, physical therapists suggest braces to shift weight away from the injured area and toward the unaffected part of the joint. The limited pressure and weight allow the area to heal correctly with little stress.
Improved Mobility – Since a properly fitted brace can achieve joint alignment, normal function starts to form with the elimination of abnormal movements. The brace can aid in movements like walking down steps, which would be difficult without the brace's stabilization and range of motion.
Braces That Serve a Similar Function For Physical Therapy Exercises
KMO™ Knee Orthosis – Improved range of motion
Pentagon® Orthosis – Strengthens muscles after fracture
V-VAS™ Knee Orthosis – Comparable to aerobic exercises for osteoarthritis
For certain injuries, it is pivotal to pair a brace with physical exercise to recover quickly. However, it's always a good idea for patients to consult with their doctor or physical therapist when determining whether their injury requires bracing or not. Custom-made or custom-fit, professionals can prescribe the exact brace to provide support and aid in recovery. While braces are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, they are each uniquely designed for each specific joint function.