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Are Elbow, Wrist and Back Supports Helpful–or Harmful?

Posted Dec 13 2008 11:26pm

Common wisdom says that braces and supports can help you keep functioning while injured, and immobilize a joint so that it can heal. A recent commenter on this blog was in fact pitching some of his braces to readers. So I felt that I should explain that braces or supports can cause as much harm as good.

Wrist braces, ankle braces, knee braces, back braces — we’ve all needed them at some point. They’re prescribed for acute sprains and pains, to chronic carpal tunnel and tennis elbow problems. But sometimes they do more harm than good. Braces can help immobilize a torn muscle or tendon to prevent you from doing more damage. It can hold the injured joint or muscles in the right posture to help them heal, and help keep down the swelling and inflammation. They can help your muscles do work even when they’re weak.

But if you wear a brace at the wrong time, or for too long, it can set back your healing process too. Let me explain with a story –a true, personal story:

In 2003 I sprained an ankle and wore a brace for some time, probably 3 months or so. Far too long. It didn’t seem to get better…just kept hurting. I was studying abroad and finally one of the program coordinators forced me to see a doctor. There was no charge at all, she told me — and indeed, the doctor did X-rays, consultations and treatments, all at no charge. (The wonders of national health care are another story). I had a tough time deciphering the German doctor’s explanations, but one thing that became clear was that the initial injury wasn’t that bad, but that I had walked with that brace on my ankle far too long. It hurt to walk and was weak, because I had stopped relying on the leg itself to do the work. Instead, the brace was doing the work–and preventing me from using my full range of motion or getting strength back. Once I stopped wearing the brace, it hurt to walk for a while yet, but healed fairly quickly. Yet today, 5 years later, whenever I walk for too long or far, it flares up again.

So, if you’re using a back or wrist brace, be aware that you might be causing damage as well as helping. Here are some general guidelines for how to use a brace or support properly:

  • For an acute injury, use supports while the injury does its primary healing process. If you’re in severe pain or too weak to walk or work, go to the doctor…don’t wear a brace indefinitely.
  • –Use braces to help immobilize an injured area– for acute or chronic injuries, braces can help your body recover and rest. If you work all day typing and your wrists get sore and swollen, wearing a brace at night while you’re watching TV. can help them get back into the proper alignment and keep swelling down.
  • –Wear them during work only if they help you work — When I had wrist problems my doctors warned me against working with wrist braces. The logic says, if you’re wearing a brace and try to stretch against the brace, you are working twice as hard to do the same work. In this way a brace that’s meant to help you stay in proper alignment can actually cause you to strain yourself too hard.
  • –Don’t rely on a brace instead of using proper technique — Many people that do heavy lifting or construction work wear braces to help. But if they’re lifting improperly, they’re going to hurt themselves no matter what. The brace may help you, but not solve the problem.
  • –Instead of wearing braces and supports at work, try to make sure you’re typing in the right posture, taking breaks, and getting enough range of motion. With a repetitive injury, the problem often happens because you’re working too long in one posture — not just because you have the wrong alignment.

Try varying your position, getting rest breaks, and stretching. Then, after work, ice the area to relieve the pressure and swelling, and then put on your supports and braces while you watch tv, read, or relax around the house.

Possibly related posts:

  1. Elbow Supports for Aching Forearms
  2. Coban — Stretchy Stuff for Carpal Tunnel issues
  3. Chronic Tissue Damage, Pain and Weakness–What can you do?
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