When Rex Benham's doctor told him he needed a total knee replacement, he feared his days as a competitive racquetball player were over. Five years later, Benham, 76, competed in the National USA Racquetball Tournament – and never had the surgery. "I am almost always pain-free and walk and play without a limp," he says.

He credits his success to a rigorous quadriceps-strengthening routine, glucosamine, and a knee brace to relieve the pain of his osteoarthritis (OA).

The best documented benefits of knee braces for OA are in cases like Benham's, in which the cartilage damage is confined to the medial, or inside, compartment of the knee, says J. Martin Leland III, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Chicago

"The unloader brace pushes the knee back into normal alignment and puts more of the force to the outside compartment and less on the damaged inside compartment so the knee feels better," he says.

Here are three more ways a brace might help people who have knee arthritis:

Allowing ligaments to heal. For medial collateral ligament (MCL) injuries, a hinged knee brace prescribed by your doctor provides the support to allow healing. Anterior collateral ligament (ACL) tears often require surgical repair, and in those cases, a drop lock hinged brace prescribed by your doctor or physical therapist may be locked to immobilize the knee or unlocked to allow the knee to bend during healing after surgery.

Relieving kneecap pain. When weakness or softness of cartilage under the kneecap causes pain, a Neoprene brace with a cutout for the kneecap can help keep the bone in place and ease pain. It should enable you to more comfortably do exercises to strengthen the quadriceps, says Matt Holland, manager of physical therapy for the Methodist Center for Sports Medicine in Houston. You can find these braces at pharmacies and sporting goods stores.

Boosting confidence. Many people report relief from knee pain with a neoprene sleeve-type brace, also available at pharmacies and sporting goods stores. Experts believe these may help by providing warmth and compression, which may relieve swelling. The main benefit, however, may be psychological, says Holland. "It gives you a feeling of support and a reminder to be more careful of that knee when you're physically active."

 

Learn about braces, splints and other products that have received the Arthritis Foundation’s Ease of Use Commendation.