Whether you’re out running, playing 5-a-side or emulating Andy Murray on the tennis court you’ve probably come across someone wearing a brace. Thanks (in part) to the aforementioned two time Wimbledon Champion, bracing has become more mainstream. People are now proud to wear a brace so that they can continue doing what they love (running, football, tennis) rather than the alternative or either sitting at home or pushing through the pain.
If you have ever been injured and gone looking for a brace you’ll be amazed by the number of options available to you. A simple search on Amazon for a knee support throws up several thousand results leading to some key questions such as:
Which one do I choose?
Are they all really that different?
What is the difference between post injury and prophylactic use of bracing?
In this post we will focus on the last one to show you the differences between the two and why people may opt for each.
Post injury management
Bracing is beneficial for managing an injury and has been proven as such, but it if you want the best result possible then don’t use it in isolation but as part of your overall treatment programme.
If you’re looking to lose weight then healthy eating is a start and it will work, but combine it with exercise and it will have a more positive effect.
The NHS will advise you to follow the RICE principles which are rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Following any injury or illness your body needs time to recover which is why rest is extremely important.
Where there is inflammation (swelling) as a result of the injury then ice can be used to treat this and even offer a degree of pain relief.
Compression works the same as ice in helping to manage inflammation which in turn can allow you to remain active for longer, as compression is normally in the form of a brace or support which is worn on your return to an activity.
Another way to reduce inflammation is elevation by raising the affected area above the level of the heart which reduces blood flow to the region.
Curative (post injury) bracing is a term used to refer to a product which is worn following an injury. This can be subdivided once again to post-operative, post (sports) injury and post medical condition diagnosis.
There are braces for your ankle, knee, groin, thigh, back, elbow and shoulder (so that you’re fully covered).
As the name suggests, you would wear something this following surgery. If you’ve had knee surgery then a surgeon will normally put you in a knee immobiliser so you can’t do any damage and undo all the hard work the surgeon has done. If you’ve had shoulder surgery then any movement could have serious consequences and delay your recovery, so again immobilising it is the safest way in the early days.
You would never immobilise your knee or your shoulder unless you were advised to do so by a surgeon as what would the point be?
Post (sports) injury bracing
Post injury bracing typically offers compression, stability or both. Compression is used to manage inflammation which can relieve pain whilst stability does what it suggests by keeping the affected area stable.
There are examples where a post injury brace can also be used as a preventative brace to prevent the same injury happening again in the future.
If we refer back to Andy Murray again he suffered from a number of ankle injuries in the past and as a result he wanted an additional level of stability when on court as you could be one slip away from a sprained ankle. The type of support he wears offers compression, but the stability comes in the form of straps which act as external ligaments to the joint which prevents the ankle rolling beyond its normal range of motion.
In general however post injury bracing is used just for that, managing the original injury and then once fully recovered putting it in a drawer and forgetting about it. If you feel more confident wearing it for certain sports (as Andy does) then that’s also fine.
Medical condition bracing
There are some conditions which are not curable, typically those resulting from brain injuries or nerve damage. An example of this would be drop foot which results in the patient being unable to lift their foot when walking, increasing the risk of tripping and causing more serious damage.
Whilst physiotherapy can be used to help strengthen the leg muscles AFO’s (ankle foot orthosis) are the bracing option. There are a number of different styles but they all work to do the same thing, stop the foot from dropping so that you don’t catch your foot when walking.
You would never wear a drop foot brace as a preventative measure, it would be pointless.
Preventative (prophylactic) bracing
We have seen (to some extent) how post injury bracing can also be used prophylactically to prevent subsequent injuries and this is also the same for this type of bracing. You may wear preventative bracing to stop an injury from happening or having suffered an injury in the past you’ll do anything to stop it from happening again.
It also depends on the sport you take part in as some sports see a brace as preventative and others see the same one as curative.
If we focus on knee braces as an example the world of extreme sports sees some heavy duty bracing. The main difference from conventional post injury braces is the material and instead of something soft and compressive these are rigid and designed to withstand huge impacts. If you are wearing a neoprene knee support and fall off your bike, it won’t help, but if you’re wearing something made from carbon fibre then your knee will be intact.
In sports such as motocross knee bracing is seen as part of your kit, as important as your helmet and very few riders will take to their bike without wearing one (normally a pair). In winter sports and wakeboarding most people only brace when their injured but this is also down to awareness of bracing technology (as was the case with motocross several years ago) but things are changing.
Rigid knee braces are designed to offer protection (as we have mentioned) but they also work to offer stability following ligament damage. The acl is the most important of the 4 ligaments within the knee and 40% of injuries affecting the acl occur as a result of extreme sports and worst case scenario you’ll be out of action for 9 months (which is why many see prevention as being better than cure). Wearing this type of brace not only has medical benefits but also psychological ones.
As stated, there are loads of different braces on the market which makes selecting the right one difficult. We hope this overview has helped but if you’re unsure which brace you need to buy then we recommend speaking with a clinician.