A lot of people wear knee sleeves now with physical activity to manage knee problems. Recently, I found myself in a discussion about efficacy of knee sleeves with a patient. They were hearing negative things from workout buddies, while they felt the sleeve was beneficial in providing stability. While I've heard mixed things during my training about braces, I decided it was time to get on the up and up. It just so happens that a recent 2017 literature review from the Journal of Physical Therapy in Sport reviewed the biomechanical and functional efficacy of knee sleeves.
The authors report some of the effects of the sleeves that have been purported by other studies:
The compression from the sleeve stimulates, provides sensation, and warms the knee helping to increase circulation and reduce pain
The compression stimulates mechanoreceptors around the joints which can improve joint position sense (proprioception) and balance
Neoprene sleeves can improve proprioception in a fatigued knee
However, they report a continual lack of clear understanding on how sleeves work as they have not been as extensively studied as rigid knee braces so they set out to find more clarity on this problem. The authors whittled down several hundred studies down to 29 that examined the effect of different types of knee sleeves on gait, balance, and proprioception (sense of positioning in space) of healthy subjects, those with knee osteoarthritis, and those with ACL reconstruction. The following are their key findings.
Sleeves can help increase the knee flexion angle during heel strike which reduces overall compressive forces to the knee. Further, it can also reduce torque forces on the medial knee joint. Both would be beneficial to reducing pain in someone with an arthritic knee.
It is unclear if sleeves will help someone's gait with an ACL injury, although sleeves are found to improve proprioception in those with ACL deficiencies as well as healthy knees!
While the simple compression from the sleeve may be enough to confer stability and proprioception, those with thin metal bars on the side may increase the effect.
Sleeves with patella cutouts may restrict the patella, but may also help stabilization and reinforcement.
My 2 cents: More research is probably needed, but so far sleeves appear to have utility. They can be beneficial in building confidence in the user as well as providing movement feedback which can be great for trying to improve knee function during exercises. While certain sleeves provide limited stability of the knee, don't expect them to prevent you from a major injury. I think the tactile sensation from the sleeve may also be beneficial in helping with pain reduction.
If you're noticing pain in your lower back when squatting or exercising, stop by our Kirkland chiropractic clinic and experience the difference that a practice that cuts out the BS to give you real comprehensive treatment, at Integrity Chiropractic.
Mohd Sharif N, Goh S, Usman J, Wan Safwani W. Literature Review: Biomechanical and functional efficacy of knee sleeves: A literature review. Physical Therapy In Sport [serial online]. November 1, 2017;28:44-52. Available from: ScienceDirect, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 7, 2018.