What Is a Compression Brace?

Extra Support for Knees and Elbows

Knee support brace

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If you have an injury to your knee or elbow, you may benefit from working with your physician to get the best treatment for your condition. One common treatment for knee and elbow joint injuries is to apply a compression brace.

The compression brace worn over your knee or elbow can help stabilize the joint, decrease swelling to your joint, and allow you to painlessly engage in otherwise painful activities.

Common injuries or conditions that may warrant the use of a compression brace include:

Any injury that creates a situation where your elbow or knee joint is unstable may benefit from using a compression brace. You should work closely with your physician or physical therapist to determine if a brace is right for your specific condition.

Compression Braces vs. Sleeves

People often confuse compression braces and knee sleeves, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Knee and elbow sleeves tend to be lightweight fabric and provide mild support and compression to your knee or elbow. Compression sleeves can be worn discreetly under clothing.

A compression brace is a little bulkier than a sleeve and often features mechanical support and metal stays or hinges. Metal hinges allow for some motion to occur while stabilizing your joint in specific directions. A knee compression brace may also control your kneecap position and keep it in place with a mechanical compression pad on one side of your kneecap.

Open Versus Closed Patella Knee Braces

Your patella, or kneecap, resides in a groove in the front of your femur. If it is pulled or pushed to one side or another, pain may result. Some knee compression braces offer open patella support. This means that the brace does not fully cover the patella.

There may be some mechanical means in the brace to provide extra stability to your kneecap while wearing the brace. People with conditions like patellofemoral stress syndrome or patella tracking issues may benefit from an open compression brace.

A closed patella knee brace covers your entire kneecap. It may offer some added comfort and protection to your kneecap, and a closed patella brace tends to fit a little more snugly over the patella.

But a closed patella knee brace will not allow your kneecap to "breathe" since it completely covers it, and it may not offer the same level of specific mechanical compression against one side of your patella that may be necessary if you have patellar tracking issues.

What Compression Braces Do

The goal of the compression brace is to provide extra stability to your joint while compressing it so you can engage in functional activities. The compression limits blood flow and swelling to the area, allowing for more freedom of movement to the joint.

A compression brace may be worn temporarily after surgery to provide stability to healing ligaments, or it may be something that is worn during activity to keep things in the right place while you are moving around.

Knee compression braces may also limit swelling around your joint and maximize circulation to the surrounding muscle tissue. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, compression garments worn during exercise increased oxygenation to muscles while decreasing recovery time after exercise.

If you have knee arthritis, a knee unloader brace may offer adequate pain relief and improved functional mobility when compared with a placebo brace, according to a study published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. Unloader braces may come with compression sleeves or as a stand-alone brace.

Where to Buy Compression Braces

When shopping for a compression brace, many people benefit from working with a professional medical supplier. That way, a custom brace can be fit for your specific needs. Your physician can direct you to a medical supplier in your area. Common outlets for medical equipment include your local orthopedic surgeon's office or orthotic and prosthetic clinics.

Retail pharmacies may also carry a large selection of compression braces for knees or elbows. These off-the-shelf braces are low-cost, but they may not fit as well as a custom brace fitted by a professional. Some people have success finding a compression brace online at Amazon or their local Walmart shopping center.

A Word From Verywell

If you are experiencing knee or elbow pain following joint surgery or after an injury that causes instability, you may benefit from wearing a compression brace for extra support. A knee or elbow compression brace can provide comfortable support, improve blood flow to muscles, and limit swelling around an injured joint.

Finding the best brace for your needs can be challenging, so working with your physician or physical therapist is a good idea. The correct brace for you can ensure that you can return to your previous level of function quickly and safely.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Coza A, Dunn JF, Anderson B, Nigg BM. Effects of compression on muscle tissue oxygenation at the onset of exerciseJournal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26(6):1631-1637. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318254885b

  2. Hjartarson HF, Toksvig-Larsen S. The clinical effect of an unloader brace on patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, a randomized placebo controlled trial with one year follow upBMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2018;19(1):341. doi:10.1186/s12891-018-2256-7

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.