To brace or not to brace? That is the question many seniors have when it comes to wanting to prevent injury (or reinjury) or speed up recovery times. Braces from back belts, to hand splints, even knee and ankle wraps, flood the aisles of pharmacies and grocery stores touting promises like “Get rid of carpal tunnel pain fast!” and “Let a back brace do the heavy lifting for you!” To Brace or Not to Brace
What is it that braces really do though? And have they been proven effective? Let’s take a look.
What Do Braces Do
Braces come in all shapes and sizes – from hard hand splints to a shoulder brace for sports to flexible sleeves you pull up over your knee. Depending on the type, size, and shape of brace you get, it may serve different purposes. Typically braces do a handful of these things:
Immobilize the body part to limit movement
Support and align a body part to power corrected motion
Compress a muscle or joint to reduce inflammation
Reduce internal stresses on joint(s) or the spine
Encourage proper posture and gait (pronation)
Make you more body aware
Alleviate joint or muscle related pain
Especially after an injury like a knee strain or ankle sprain, braces are recommended by doctors and physical therapists during recovery periods. In combination with heat and ice therapy, braces can compress and limit motion, helping prevent further injury, and making it possible to keep moving without severe pain.
Chronic conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, where the median nerve running up the arm to the hand is pinched by an inflamed carpal tunnel, or osteoarthritis, inflammation of joints at the ends of bones, can be painful and may even limit day to day activity. A hand brace or thumb splint can immobilize a hand with an inflamed carpal tunnel to help alleviate pain, while a knee brace for someone with osteoarthritis also stabilizes the joint to relieve pain as well as encourages a patient to to stay mobile.
Can Braces Prevent Injury
The jury is still out. Studies, like this 2015 one, have not been able to draw scientifically significant links between bracing and injury prevention. Thousands of physical labor employees who work in warehouses, delivery trucks, or airport baggage centers, for example, spend hours a day lifting heavy, large loads – and many of them utilize a back brace to support their motions and reduce their risk of injury. You might even do this yourself when lifting heavy bags of mulch to the garden, or moving large boxes around in the garage. Research has shown that injury rates don’t diminish when back brace use goes up, however, and that even in some cases, wearing a back brace can generate a misleading sense of self-confidence, leading the wearer to exert him or herself more than they normally would.
A similar ‘it may or may not help’ goes for prophylactic ankle and knee braces when it comes to research. Recommended more for someone who has previously injured a body part, ankle and knee braces aim to limit excessive joint motion and protect a part of the body that might be weaker or less stable because of previous injury. As far as wearing one to prevent first-time injury, older adults should discuss any new exercise regimens or sports they are starting to play with their doctor first to weigh risks, benefits, and the potential need for a brace.
When pain from an injury, extended recovery from a surgery, or a chronic condition limits your activity levels and ability to stay active and exercise, it is definitely time to talk with your healthcare provider about braces, mobility aids, and getting you back on your feet. For older adults, staying active plays an important role in remaining mobile, independent, and fighting cognitive decline and heart disease. A shoulder brace that works for you may not work for your friend or spouse, and the other way around. But if a brace helps you stick with daily exercise, relieves pain, and motivates you to stay active, it could be the answer you’re looking for.