We are “brace-happy” as exercisers. At the first sign of anything hurting, we go and throw on a brace (almost always with medical prompting), as if it’s the magic bullet for all that ails us. Although this might seem like a great idea, and it even might provide temporary relief, it could actually be doing more harm than good.
When to Brace
Clearly there is an appropriate time to brace a joint complex. Generally, the appropriateness and type of brace is determined by a health care professional (whom you had to see probably because something was bothering you quite a bit). When a joint is significantly unstable (due to injury) and/or when any excessive additional movement can cause further injury, bracing IS appropriate (at least until these two criterias are no longer the case). Braces should be recommended by your health care professional and verified for proper fit, as an improperly fitting brace can cause more harm than good.
When & Why NOT to Brace
As a general rule of thumb, people brace far more often than they should. When bracing is done correctly (correct time frame, correct type, and correct size), it is very effective. When it’s done for the wrong reasons, with the wrong brace, or for too long, it can lead to significant long-term issues. Here are some generalized don’ts on bracing:
• Don’t brace at the first sign of pain.
I probably shouldn’t even say “pain,” it’s probably more discomfort than anything else (if it were true pain, you’d go to your doctor). Bracing at the first sign of pain and restricting movement can actually slow down the healing process. Movement at a joint when it’s mildly injured brings blood flow, and along with it, nutrients and other cells to help in the recovery process.
• Don’t brace for too long.
Once your symptoms subside, you should really wean your way off of your brace (explained below). As soon as you brace, you start to weaken the stabilizing structures (muscles and connective tissue) around the joint. Simply putting on the brace takes away from the joint’s internal stabilizing mechanisms of muscular contraction and connective tissue strength and then places a good deal of that on the brace. So if you wear the brace for too long, the joint will grow progressively weaker. This will result in either: (1) the brace comes off and a more significant injury occurs, or (2) the brace never comes off (which can lead to other injuries).
• Don’t go “cold-turkey” with your brace.
If you have braced (whether it’s for right or wrong reasons), progressively wean yourself off of the brace. Go back to performing some exercise without the brace first (things that you know won’t bother you, for example) and then slowly integrate in more potentially bothersome movements without the brace. A good general rule of thumb is to take between 7-14 days to wean yourself off of a brace.
Take Home Message on Bracing
When something starts to hurt during exercise, your first reaction shouldn’t be to jump into a brace. You should evaluate how you feel, and if the pain is only minor (< 5 on a scale of 10) proceed with exercise cautiously. In these situations, it is much better to perform corrective exercises that drive blood flow for healing than to just slap on a brace. The bottom-line is a brace may seem like the only thing that can help, but the reality is, more often than not it can cause some serious issues down the line.