How Knee Braces Can Help Painful Knee Osteoarthritis

An estimated 14 million Americans have been diagnosed with knee symptomatic osteoarthritis. Knee braces are one way to provide stability, support, and pain relief for patients with knee osteoarthritis. Other common treatment options include:

  • Medications (such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids)
  • Lifestyle modifications (including weight loss and strengthening exercises)
  • Joint protection techniques
  • Assistive devices
  • Joint surgery is considered a last resort treatment option

Patients should consider trying a knee brace to see if there is a noticeable benefit. The knee brace is a complementary treatment, to go along with other treatments. Knee braces do not replace other treatment options.

Knee Brace for Osteoarthritis

Barry Austin / Getty Images

The Appropriate Knee Brace for You

There are different kinds of knee braces and it’s important for your healthcare provider or a health professional to help decide which knee brace might be appropriate for you. The three major compartments of the knee are:

  • Medial (or medial tibiofemoral): on the inside of the knee joint
  • Lateral (or lateral tibiofemoral): on the outside of the knee joint
  • Patellofemoral: behind the kneecap

Usually, knee braces are recommended for patients who have ​cartilage loss in one compartment of the knee, also known as unicompartmental knee damage. Osteoarthritis most commonly develops in the medial compartment.

Types of Knee Braces

Single-piece sleeves made of neoprene, an elastic, rubbery material, are the simplest knee braces. The knee brace is pulled on over the foot of the affected leg and is placed over the knee where it provides compression, warmth, and support. This type of knee brace is for mild to moderate osteoarthritis and it is available over the counter in most drug stores. The fit should be snug.

An unloading brace (sometimes called an offloading brace) is a semi-rigid knee brace made from molded plastic and foam. Steel struts inserted on the sides limit lateral knee movement and add stability. It relieves pain by transferring pressure to the opposite side of the knee. Research has found that an unloading brace can delay the need for surgery in people with unicompartmental knee osteoarthritis. Depending on the specifics of your condition, you might need to order a custom-made unloader brace, or you might be able to buy one from a store or online.

Experts suggest that patients allow a week to one month to adjust to how the unloader brace feels. Right from the start, don’t expect comfort. It takes a little time. Experts also warn patients about becoming too reliant on the unloader brace. Take it off from time to time so you can exercise and strengthen muscles. It’s also important to remember that a knee brace is just one part of a patient’s treatment regimen. Don’t disregard other aspects of your treatment regimen without first talking to your healthcare provider.

5 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. Deshpande BR, Katz JN, Solomon DH, et al. Number of persons with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis in the US: impact of race and ethnicity, age, sex, and obesity. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2016;68(12):1743-1750. doi:10.1002/acr.22897

  2. Lespasio MJ, Piuzzi NS, Husni ME, Muschler GF, Guarino A, Mont MA. Knee osteoarthritis: a primer. Perm J. 2017;21(4). doi:10.7812/TPP/16-183

  3. Stoddart JC, Dandridge O, Garner A, Cobb J, van Arkel RJ. The compartmental distribution of knee osteoarthritis – a systematic review and meta-analysis. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2021;29(4):445-455. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2020.10.011

  4. Kemker BP, Kankaria R, Patel N, Golladay G. Hip and knee bracing: categorization, treatment algorithm, and systematic review. J Am Acad Orthop Surg Glob Res Rev. 2021;5(6):e20.00181-12. doi:10.5435/JAAOSGlobal-D-20-00181

  5. Lee PY, Winfield TG, Harris SR, Storey E, Chandratreya A. Unloading knee brace is a cost-effective method to bridge and delay surgery in unicompartmental knee arthritis. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2017;2(1):e000195. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000195

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."