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Diagnosis is always essential in being able to effectively manage a condition as this can dictate the type of brace you need (if any) and the activities which are recommended as part of your rehabilitation.
In considering swimming it is a great activity for reducing the strain on the knee joint that you would get when walking or running. There is however a caveat as sufferers of MCL injuries are often advised against performing breaststroke as this can aggravate the injury and whilst it might not be evident whilst in the water you may feel it later on.
When considering knee braces there are different styles and designs and they all manage different conditions. If you’re suffering from ligament damage but wear an osteoarthritis brace then whilst it may feel better the mechanics of the brace itself are offering little to no support for your specific injury.
Normally the main issue following a knee injury is weight bearing, affecting your ability to walk, run jump etc.
From a rehabilitation perspective you are normally instructed to revert to activities which have less impact on the knee joint such as cycling or swimming as these still allow you to exercise, keep you fit and healthy and also serve to protect the knee joint from extreme forces (your body weight).
So when considering swimming it is a great activity to relieve the pressure form your knees and is recommended for sufferers of osteoarthritis (degradation of the cartilage resulting in pain when mobile) along with other conditions.
With this in mind why would you need to wear a knee brace when swimming? Is it for peace of mind or has your clinician recommended wearing one for additional support?
If it is for peace of mind then the advice would be to speak with your clinician to see if you really need it as if you’re experiencing problems when swimming then the issue could be the activity (or even your knee) rather than a need to brace up.
If you’re clinician has recommended a brace then read on, or if they have suggested a specific product then look at that first.
Knee bracing, as with any other brace, is designed to keep you active and offer you additional support which can help counteract inflammation or stability resulting from the original injury.
When it comes to swimming there is no instability because you’re not weight bearing (apart from walking to the pool and back to the changing rooms), so it’s important to understand why you want to brace up in the first place and what you think you’ll gain.
Ultimately the benefits you get from wearing a knee brace on land are not the same as those experienced in water so think before you buy as you could save yourself some money. This essentially refers back to the previous question of why you need to wear it when swimming and if this is peace of mind or resulting from a clinical recommendation.
Now you’ve been through the preliminary questions we can revert back to the main question posed in identifying a suitable knee brace for you to use, if you actually need one.
When you’re shopping for a knee brace you’ll notice that there are loads of options and these can be quickly categorised into either offering stability, compression or both (or immobilisation following surgery – which would rule you out of swimming anyway).
Compression braces are often sleeve based in design and have no moving parts (some do have straps) as they are simply designed to manage inflammation. These are great for minor ailments.
Stability braces on the other hand (even those also offering compression) are typically hinged based combined with straps. These are designed for instability following either ligament damage or patella (kneecap) injuries to help you remain active for longer.
If we start to consider which type of brace is best in the water then you have to look at the components of a brace i.e. are there any parts within it which could be adversely affected following submersion in water?
If we’re looking at the rust effect then typically anything with a hinge or buckle is susceptible to rusting and something you should be mindful of and look into prior to making a purchase, as this will damage the mechanics of the brace and make it less / ineffective.
That doesn’t rule out all braces though as there are plenty of options on the market which promote their use in water.
Extreme sports knee bracing is one such area where they are designed to be worn in water, with many athletes across wakeboarding, wakeskating and surfing wearing such devices. They are manufactured from non-corroding materials which mean your knee will remain stable and the brace will stand the test of time (providing you follow the cleaning instructions after use).
These types of braces are rigid by design and offer protection against impact damage whilst keeping your knee stable, so fantastic for extreme sports. If you’re simply looking to get a bit of stability when in the water then it’s probably an expensive and unnecessary choice for you.
Having said these types of braces can help to stabilise the joint for certain strokes and injuries when considering MCL injuries and breaststroke (as noted earlier) but again do you need to buy this type of brace just to do a bit of breaststroke? Will it be used outside of swimming? Or is it cheaper and easier to change your stroke for a bit?
If there are no moving parts or mechanical elements to the brace then there is nothing to rust and therefore can be worn in water.
The question you need to answer (if you haven’t done already) is whether it will do the job. If you’re looking to manage instability then a sleeve won’t help and if this injury is still causing a problem in the water then you should stop what you’re doing and seek clinical help before jumping back in the pool.
It may always sound like a simple question to ask but when it comes to bracing there are so many other questions which need to be considered before finding the right answer.
Swimming in general is a great activity as it is non-weight bearing and is often recommended as part of knee injury rehabilitation, however if you’re still suffering from knee pain then it is advisable to speak with a medical professional in the first instance before getting a brace.
It may turn out that a brace will help you out, or you may need to change your activity to minimise the risk of doing further damage. Knee pain can be quite debilitating as it is such an important joint so that is why seeking a professional diagnosis is always the first approach rather than creating more problems unnecessarily.