All it takes is a quick search on the internet or a stroll down the aisle at a pharmacy to realize how many different types of leg braces (technically called lower limb orthoses) are available.
From soft, low-profile options to braces that are made from bulkier, rigid material, it can be difficult to know which type is right for you. With a little bit of background knowledge and guidance from your doctor, however, a leg brace can be used to help with a wide variety of conditions.
What’s a Leg Brace?
While there are many different types, in general a leg brace is defined as any external device that supports, stabilizes, unloads, compresses or simply protects an area of the lower half of your body.
Typically, braces are worn over a leg joint like your hip, knee or ankle. While some brace varieties are available for purchase over the counter, other types require a doctor's prescription and may be more customized to fit your body type or specific injury.
When Do You Need a Leg Brace?
Just as there are a variety of leg braces available, there are also many different reasons for needing one. People who've sustained an injury to their muscles, ligaments or bones may need to use a leg brace to help control their movement and stabilize the previously injured joint.
Those with a more acute injury or who've undergone surgery may be prescribed a brace that's more protective or that temporarily limits the amount of movement in their leg. Or in other cases, people with degeneration or an injury in their joint may opt to wear a leg brace that decreases the amount of pressure placed through the joint in an effort to decrease day-to-day pain.
Soft neoprene sleeves are also sometimes used to provide compression and warmth to an area in an attempt to control pain and swelling. And lastly, some people with more complex neurological or physical disabilities may require specific, customized bracing to maximize their overall function.
Which Brace Should I Use?
Having a strong understanding of your medical condition will help you determine which type of leg brace is right for you. This is especially important after undergoing surgery or sustaining an injury. In most cases, your doctor or physical therapist will be able to guide you toward the proper device.
Types of Hip Braces
Individuals with arthritis in their hips may want to try an unloader leg brace, designed to decrease the amount of pressure on the degenerated joint. And according to a small 2016 study published in Prosthetics and Orthotics International, it is helpful in relieving pain in people with this condition.
Along the same lines, people with hip impingement (also known as femoralacetabular impingement or FAI) may try wearing a SERF (stability through external rotation of the femur) strap brace, which attempts to limit the movement causing impingement or pinching in the joint. There are still questions, however, about whether or not this type of orthosis actually decreases pain.
Finally, custom braces that limit your motion in a variety of different directions are often prescribed by surgeons after operations on the hip joint.
Read more: 7 Dynamic Stretches to Improve Hip Mobility
Types of Knee Braces
Just like the hip, there are also unloader braces for your knee joint. This type of device is meant to shift the pressure from the inside of your knee to the outside in an attempt to decrease the pressure on the area of the knee that frequently contains more arthritis.
According to a 2014 meta-analysis in Arthritis Care and Research, using this type of orthosis has lead to small to moderate pain improvements in patients with osteoarthritis.
In addition, individuals who sustain an injury to their knee ligaments or muscles and who undergo a surgical repair may be put in a metallic knee brace afterwards. This type of leg brace provides stability for the injured tissue as you return to activities like running and exercising.
It also often limits the amount of movement allowed at the joint. According to 2017 clinical practice guidelines published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, there is still mixed evidence about the effectiveness of bracing after a knee ligament injury or surgery.
Types of Ankle Braces
When it comes to ankle braces, options range from softer, lace up braces to more rigid braces with metal hinges. According to a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis in Sports Medicine, these devices are helpful in reducing the likelihood that a person will re-injure their ankle after an initial sprain. Performing regular balance and ankle exercises will also help prevent a re-sprain.
To add to this, there's some evidence that athletes who wear a brace preventatively made reduce their chances of spraining an ankle in the first place. It doesn't appear to matter which type of brace is worn, so you may be able to select the one that feels most comfortable to you.
While not technically a brace, softer sleeves made of neoprene are also widely available for the leg joints and sometimes used to control knee swelling and pain. While this type of orthosis is usually among the cheapest, its benefits are not conclusively proven.
Per a 2017 review published in the Journal of Physical Therapy in Sport, knee sleeves may help improve balance and overall function in patients with ligament injuries and may also better the walking pattern of those with knee arthritis.
How Long Do I Wear One?
Again, the the amount of time you wear a leg brace varies. To prevent a sprain or injury to the ankle, a brace may be worn any time you're doing something more active or athletic.
In the case of an unloader brace for the knee or hip, however, wearing the brace anytime you're on your feet may be the best way to reduce your pain.
Following an injury or surgery, however, the best advice is to talk to your doctor. Because each physician's protocol varies, they can give you the best guidance on how long to keep your leg brace on for.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Knee Bracing: What Works?
- Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation: Walking Systems and Braces
- Prosthetics and Orthotics International: Clinical Study on the Unloading Effect of Hip Bracing on Gait in Patients with Hip Osteoarthritis
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: Effects of a Hip Brace on Biomechanics and Pain in People with Femoroacetabular Impingement
- Arthritis Care and Research: Valgus Bracing for Knee Osteoarthritis: A Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Trials
- Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy: Knee Stability and Movement Coordination Impairments: Knee Ligament Sprain Revision 2017
- Sports Medicine: Ankle Bracing is Effective for Primary and Secondary Prevention of Acute Ankle Injuries in Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses
- Journal of Physical Therapy in Sport: Biomechanical and Functional Efficacy of Knee Sleeves: A Literature Review