Do you need to be wearing that brace when you go to the gym or go out to play sports? The general idea of wearing a brace is to prevent injury by limiting motion of a certain joint. And with knee braces on the market that cost upwards of $300, the question becomes, is it worth it? By looking at the different ways our bodies resist motion to provide joint stability we can create a better idea of when it is appropriate to wear a brace.
Active vs. Passive Stabilization
There are two types of structures that help to stabilize our joints. The first are our passive stabilizers. Our ligaments, which resist motion passively. Easy examples are seen in the knee. Our ACL and PCL provide stability by limiting anterior to posterior movement. Our MCL prevents valgus (knee inward) forces and our LCL prevents varus (knee outward force).
Active, or dynamic, stabilizers resist excessive motion through active contraction. These are the muscles that surround the joint. Active stabilizers increase joint stability while taking pressure off of the passive structures.
Injury occurs when excess forced is place on our passive structures. This usually happens when our dynamic stabilizers fail (often do to weakness or improper timing or a direct blow to that joint). Which is why the best joint stabilization programs focus on active rehabilitation plans to improve the strength and timing of our neuromuscular system.
A brace functions as a passive stabilizer. Which means their benefit is limited to a few situations.
- The first being when there is damage done to our passive stabilizers (ligament laxity due to a sprain).
- The second is during times of healing when there is some impairment of our dynamic (recovering from surgery).
Both these scenarios are generally short term. And while wearing a brace when it’s not necessary doesn’t have many risks, the problem arises when we rely on the brace as our sole form of stabilization , with no effort in strengthening and improving the function of the muscles surrounding the joint. This is a surefire way to injure/re-injure the area.
To sum it all up, braces may be effective in the short term after an injury has taken place. But after that, they are an ineffective means to prevent future injuries. Injury prevention is achieved through improving the function of our dynamic stabilizers through a strength, balance, and proprioceptive program.