Knee Braces in Football: The Why Behind the Wear


The sport of football has been around since the mid-19th century and, as it popularity grew, so did the number of people wanting to take part. The National Football League was finally established in 1920, and the sport has since then become a household name with kids of all ages participating from a very young age. Between 2008-09, the NCAA recorded 633 active institutions with a football team and 64,897 participants. That number has only grown since.

As most know, football is a contact sport that requires a lot of physical interaction between teams. Football players tend to be very good contenders for injury because of the large amount of pressure put on their knees while pushing, tackling, making directional changes, and performing lateral movements. There has been a lot of discussion surrounding injury prevention and protection in sports in recent years. The topic has gained in popularity as competition has become tougher, and athletes are expected to perform at higher levels at an earlier age.

It was reported that the most common injuries for a football player include: Concussions (7.4%), Head, Face & Neck (4.3%), Upper Limb (16.9%), Torso & Pelvis (11.9%), Other (9.1%), and Lower Limb (at a whopping 50.4%).

With such a large percentage of injuries occurring in the lower limbs, many have discussed the options to protect and prevent injury in the area. Knee braces have been a large part of that conversation, and many are wondering why so many players opt to wear knee braces during practice and game play. The question is: Why do athletes choose to wear knee braces in football?

————————- Previous Injury ————————-

For many athletes, it all comes down to doctor’s orders when deciding whether or not to wear a knee brace. Those who have experienced a mild or serious tear in the past may have already gone through surgery or rehab for their ligaments, and a brace is necessary to protect it from future harm.

There are lots of custom knee braces that work specifically to protect injured ligaments. The braces help to keep the ligaments in the proper position during rehabilitation and also help to support the area during performance after the athlete has healed enough to play. Athletes wearing custom braces may go through a series of different ones as they heal, as there are various styles that cater to the different stages. The goal would be to eventually wear a simple brace that offers only little support once the knee area has returned back to its original performing state.

————————- Injury Prevention ————————-

For others, however, it may be more about lowering the risk than anything else. Although players may not have past or current injuries, wearing a knee brace may help to avoid possible injuries and be much less costly both to the player individually and to the team as a whole.

Take the NFL, for example. The salaries of players in this league are very impressive, and teams certainly want their players to be healthy to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth. A team that has 3 or 4 players on the injured list is certainly missing out on their investment’s talent! It makes much more sense for teams to invest in cost-effective knee braces that may help prevent injury and keep their players on the field. This will keep their best players on the field, ensuring the team’s success.

————————- Young Athletes ————————-

For athletes at lower levels of the game, investing in a knee brace can still be beneficial. Staying healthy through youth leagues and high school sports can help propel athletes into their college or professional careers injury-free, which is a huge bonus on their resume and for their future health. Young athletes who have already experienced serious injuries may have cut their athletic careers short and may be prone to further injury if they continue to play.

The decision over whether to invest in a knee brace should begin as a discussion between the athlete, parents, and coaches. There are a few things that will factor into the decision. If a young athlete is planning to invest a lot of time into the sport of football, then it might be a good idea to consider a knee brace to increase their chances of staying injury-free over their career. It might also be a good idea for young athletes whose bodies are not fully developed yet. Children who practice and play constantly can injure the bones and cartilage that hasn’t fully formed yet.

————————- Repetitiveness ————————-

Football is a game of repetition. Countless times in a game, players are responsible for squatting down, tackling, changing direction, and running laterally. The repetitiveness of these actions can wear down the ligaments over time, making the area more susceptible to tears.

Regardless of the level or age an athlete, they may consider knee braces if they’re going to be committing to a specific sport over time. This will help with those repetitive movements, and protect them from the wear and tear over time.

———————— Position on the Field ————————-

Depending on a football player’s position on the field, this can also help to determine if they want to consider a knee brace. For example, players who are in the position of linebacker will experience much more tackling and contact than someone who is in the position of, say, a wide receiver or quarterback.

Depending on how comfortable they are with their position and how often they’re using their lower limbs, a football player’s position can help them decide if their body needs the extra protection.

To understand more about knee braces in football and their role in the game, it’s important to know that there are four popular types of knee braces: Prophylactic, Functional, Unloader, and Rehabilitative. These different types will help to explain why players are wearing a certain kind of knee brace.

————————- Prophylactic Knee Braces ————————-

Because injury is so common in football, it is up to players whether they would like to wear certain protective gear that may increase their chances of safety. Some players fear that their level of performance will be hindered by braces and therefore don’t wear them; however, the advances in braces have many convinced that they don’t have any effect on performance. If a player cannot perform properly with the brace, or they feel discomfort, then a preventative brace may not be the right road to take.

A prophylactic knee brace is generally used for sport injury prevention. It works mainly to protect the medial collateral ligament (MCL), while also helping to protect the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), the Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL), and the Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL).

The braces are constructed mainly of hinges, bars, and straps, and when worn properly, they help to keep all of the ligaments in place during activity. Various studies have been performed on the level of protection that the brace provides, each with varying results. Some show small improvements in the safety and protection of the ligaments, while others see a much larger improvement. As mentioned, the effectiveness of a brace can rely on things like repetition and the player’s position.

————————- Functional Braces ————————-

Functional braces are more popular for athletes who have already experienced an injury. These braces are much more individual-specific, and they work to support the knee while it heals after surgery and rehabilitation. Because there is a wide variety of knee injuries experienced, functional knee braces come in lots of different designs to cater to a combination of injuries.

Whether the injury is to the MCL, LCL, ACL, PCL, or any combination of the four, a specific functional brace will be able to hold the ligaments in place during rehabilitation. Generally speaking, injuries that are not as severe will require a functional brace made from metal hinges and a neoprene material, while more severe injuries should be protected by a brace that has a rigid frame with hinges.

A functional knee brace is not the only solution to a knee injury, and these generally work hand in hand with lengthy rehabilitation programs. An athlete’s doctor should be able to advise on the type of brace needed for the specific injury, as well as the suggested rehab practices that will help the knee to heal without the pressure of the upper body weighing down on it.

————————- Rehabilitative Braces ————————-

Rehabilitative braces have a very specific function, which is to keep the knee in a position of limited movement immediately after an injury or surgery. The parts of the knee that can be protected by this kind of brace include the MCL, ACL, LCL, and PCL, as well as the meniscus.

As mentioned earlier, there are a variety of braces for different stages of rehabilitation. This brace is generally only worn for the first few weeks after surgery and may be worn in combination with crutches. What makes this style of brace different is that it offers the ability to remove the brace easily to observe the injury and also has excess room available around the knee in the case of swelling. Most rehabilitative braces are made from foam, rigid bars, and hinges which offer a controlled range of motion and have 6-8 straps to ensure that the area goes undisturbed.

————————- Unloader Braces ————————-

Unloader braces also have a specific function, which is to relieve a specific joint of the stress that’s being put on it. An unloader brace is usually custom-made to fit the needs of the wearer, and they are most commonly worn by people who have Knee Osteoarthritis. Knee Osteoarthritis creates a large amount of instability in the knee and makes it hard for individuals to walk. Generally, the knee will wobble inwards or outwards and can be very painful.

An unloader brace will put pressure on three different points of the thigh bone, thereby relieving the joint of the stress so that it can move more freely. The braces are generally made from foam, plastic, and steel struts that inhibit the side to side movement of the knee.

Unloader braces do not come in one style, and it’s important to check with a doctor before deciding on the design that best fits your needs. While the brace does help with Knee Osteoarthritis, it will not cure the problem on its own.

————————- Knee Sleeves ————————-

While knee sleeves aren’t considered a knee brace, some football players may wear these on the field, either to help with small injuries, for comfort, or as a precaution. They may provide protection to the knee joint and help to increase stability; however, they’re not quite as capable as the knee braces to support and protect.

While it is not totally clear how effective knee braces are in helping to protect and prevent knee injuries, there have been some studies which do support the effectiveness of knee braces. This study focused on 1,396 cadets in the United States Military Army in West Point, New York playing tackle football. What they found was that prophylactic knee braces did, in fact, reduce knee injuries significantly; however, the results did depend on the position being played. According to this specific study, players who were in the defensive positions benefitted the most from wearing a protective knee brace.

The number of injuries in young adults has increased dramatically over the years, and many reports speak about the added pressure and negative effects sports can have on athletes’ bodies when not fully developed. While it’s important to instill a hard work ethic in young athletes, there is always the chance that injuries will arise early on and fester throughout an athlete’s career. For those who are thinking about knee braces, be sure to check with a doctor first before making any decisions. While knee braces are very common in football for injury prevention and rehabilitation, they are not for everyone and should be considered carefully.

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