What Is an Unloader Knee Brace?

An X-ray showing osteoarthritis of the knee.
An X-ray showing osteoarthritis of the knee. SMC Images/Getty Images

Question: What Is an Unloader Knee Brace?

About 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis, a painful condition that can limit your ability to walk comfortably. Knee braces are one way to provide stability, support, and pain relief for patients with knee osteoarthritis.

There is more than one kind of knee brace. You will want to discuss with your doctor what type of knee brace would offer you the most benefit.

The decision will depend on your specific problem and what limitation you are trying to overcome.

One of the most effective knee braces -- for the appropriate patient -- is known as an unloader knee brace. What exactly is an unloader knee brace?

Answers: Who Needs an Unloader Knee Brace?

An unloader knee brace does exactly what its name suggests -- it unloads stress from the affected joint. Most often, unloader knee braces are prescribed for those with medial compartment knee osteoarthritis (affecting the inner portion of the knee).

When you walk, if you have medial knee osteoarthritis, the instability in the knee can be obvious to someone who is watching you walk -- the knee actually wobbles towards the inside. Some designs of unloader knee braces can unload either the medial (inner) or lateral (outer) part of the knee -- just by adjusting the unloading hinge.

How Does the Unloader Knee Brace Work?

The unloader knee brace is a custom-designed brace made of molded plastic, foam, and steel struts to limit side movement.

The unloader brace is designed to put three points of pressure on the thigh bone. This forces the knee to bend away from the painful aspect of the knee. Essentially, it transfers or "unloads" stress or pressure from the inside to outside part of the knee or vice versa.

Points to Remember About Unloader Knee Braces

A few important points:

  • Unloader knee braces are bulky. You will want loose pant legs for it to look right.
  • Unloader knee braces are pricey. Check with your insurance to be sure it will be covered.
  • Unloader knee braces are usually used along with your other osteoarthritis treatments, not instead of them. Keep taking medications or doing whatever else you and your doctor agreed upon.
  • There is not just one unloader knee brace. There are several designs of unloaders, so it is wise to have a professional help you choose what is right for you.
  • Unloader knee braces can be especially helpful for those waiting to have knee replacement surgery.

Inconclusive Recommendation by AAOS for Unloader Knee Braces

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons assessed the studies into whether an unloader knee brace should be a rcommended treatment for knee osteoarthritis. They compared four studies and decided they were inconclusive. They can't recommend for or against using a valgus directing force brace (medial compartment unloader).

Meanwhile, there were no appropriate studes for varus-directing force braces. This kind of recommendation means that patient preference should be strongly considered in a doctor suggesting an unloader knee brace to relieve osteoarthritis knee pain.

Sources:

The Unloader Technology. Ossur. Accessed 9/21/2008.

Brace Yourself for Knee Pain Relief. MedicalNewsToday. September 26, 2007.

Osteoarthritis of the Knee. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). February 26, 2003.

Guideline on the Treatment of Osteoarthritis (OA) of the Knee. Richmond John MD et al. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. 5/18/2013.

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