I tore the ACL in my right knee in 2002. I had surgery that winter--my new ACL graft was constructed from my own hamstring. I also damaged the cartilage in the joint in that same fall. In 2006, I had another bad fall that ravaged most of the cartilage in the inside half of my right knee. I saw the photographs the orthopod took--there were fingernail clipping-sized pieces of cartilage floating around in there (that explained the pain and crunchiness). Thankfully, though my graft was damaged it was not torn completely.
I got a knee brace in 2002 and since the fall in 2006 have been wearing it obsessively whenever I expect to put a lot of stress on my knee such as when I do agility or flyball with my dogs. I have also accumulated a collection of lighter braces which I wear when driving or even walking the dogs. For example, I wear a neoprene sleeve when I have a long drive of more than an hour. It keeps my knee warm and compressed and prevents it from stiffening up due to the inactivity.
Despite the excellent surgeries, physical therapy, and desultory exercise work at home, I have been living with nearly constant pain since 2006. On a scale of 1 to 10, it is usually a 3, but it would jump up to 8 or 9 fairly often. After running the girls back to back in class for three hours followed by a 45-minute drive home, I would be unable to walk for several minutes. I would have to hold onto the car as I hobbled around to the back to collect my gear and the dogs. My knee was very stiff and if I tried to put weight on it, it would collapse.
Knee braces are hot. When doing yard work or running around in a dirt-floored horse arena, inevitably sand and other painful grit works its way under the straps and pads and can rub raw patches. Eeep! Get a little sweat into those and it wakes you right up. To keep my brace from slipping, I would have to tighten the straps very tightly, sometimes too tight as I would discover when I removed it. (I have no feeling in the front half of my lower leg because of nerve damage during the two surgeries so I can't tell when the brace is too tight. I have to remember to loosen it every so often to check.) The pads and straps get pretty smelly after a while and have to be removed and washed. All in all, it is a tough compromise: I need the brace to do the things I love doing but it was a bit of a pain to keep after all of the little details.
This had to change. I figured that in 7 years, brace technology must have improved. If nothing else, a new brace would be lighter and hopefully somewhat lower profile.
So I found a local orthopedic group and got an appointment with one of their surgeons. He took some xrays, listened to my tale of woe, and said, I'm going to order you an unloader brace.
Even though there is still fairly reasonable clearance in my joint when I'm standing, I probably do have some bone rubbing on bone during activity, especially on the inside of my knee joint.
The unloader brace is special because it has an extra large pad on the outside of my knee joint with an adjustable tensioner inside it. It pushes my knee joint towards the inside, forcing the inside half to open up more.
The new brace has much more metal than the old one, and more straps, but it weighs about the same because it is made of an aluminum composite rather than straight aluminum like the old one. It is also contoured to fit the shape of my leg better. This is not an unloader brace, but it is the same model as my new one, a Breg Fusion, so you can get the general idea.
New on the left, old on the right. The new brace is asymmetrical as your leg actually is. You can see it is tapered too. The tensioned pad is on the left as you view the brace; it fits on the outside of my knee.
I've now worn the new brace to a flyball tournament and agility class, and amazingly I have even done a tiny bit of running with the dogs during our last two evening walks (I ran about half a mile each time, have to start with small goals). I have done my best to push myself--during that flyball tournament I ran two start dogs, and since Gracie got to run in Mimi's class and it is a very small class, I was running flat out every few minutes with one girl or another.
It is a miracle. No pain. None. No stiffness. No limping.
Some smart engineers and medical folks got together and designed this amazing brace and overnight it has changed my quality of life.