Degenerative Joint Disease affects millions of Americans and with an aging baby boomer population will most certainly become more of an issue as we try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and battle against the affects of our youth. The knee joint is one of the most effected areas in the body regarding the “wear and tear” effects of osteoarthritis. More patients and doctors are looking for alternatives to medication and surgery to improve patient mobility, reduce pain and swelling, and prevent the inevitable and dreaded “knee replacement”.
“Unloader” knee braces, or “arthritis” knee braces, are designed to literally bend the knee into a position that reduces the stress and weight on the affected joint, thereby reducing pain and swelling. There are two compartments in the knee, referred to as medial or inner and lateral or outer compartments. The vast majority of patients suffer from medial compartment osteoarthritis (unicarpartmental oseoarthritis). When this occurs, the joint cartilage, synovial fluid are reduced or absent and the result is a “collapse” of the medial compartment.
The knee joint becomes misaligned and what was normally a joint that bears equal pressure to support the body, turns into a painful angular joint, with excessive wear and pressure on the inner compartment, with pain, swelling and in advanced stages, limitation of movement. The angular change caused by this medial compartment arthritis is referred to as a varus deformity. This term refers to an inward angulation of the lower leg in relation to the thigh. If you have ever seen a newborn and looked at their legs, you will understand what a varus or bow leg is. This is a varus deformity.
Likewise, the angular change caused by a lateral compartment arthritis is referred to as a valgus deformity. This term refers to an outwards deviation of the lower leg in relation to the thigh. Many people are familiar with the term “knock knee”. In the old days, you would see movies, where the teenage girl sits with her knees and thighs together, and her feet spread out. This is a valgus deformity.
An “unloader” knee brace corrects the varus or valgus relationship of the leg to the thigh, making the entire leg straighter and aligning the joint back to its level position. By bending the knee joint back into a more aligned position, the brace opens up a gap or space between the leg and thigh bone, so the two bones do not rub up against each other. This reduces the pain or swelling that occurs when two rough arthritis bones come in contact with each other.
When purchasing an “unloader” knee brace, it is important to know if you have a medial or lateral osteoarthritis. This can be confirmed with x-rays, noting the collapse of the knee joint, and the angular changes that are occurring. It is also important to consult with your treating doctor prior to purchasing such a device. Wearing a lateral unloader knee brace with a medial compartment arthritis may result in increased pain, swelling and accelerated joint damage. There are many choices to be made when deciding which arthritis or “unloader” knee brace to purchase. Please check with your doctor and do your research before you choose.