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How and When to Wear a Compression for Knee Pain

Man wears compression for knee pain

Sometimes, it can feel as though a workout recovery routine takes as much energy as your workouts themselves. 

That's not to negate the importance of recovery, particularly if you're prone to injury. But between foam rolling, stretching, mobility work, and a dip in an ice bath, an all-encompassing recovery process can easily take 30 minutes to an hour of your time. 

Here's the good news: If you're short on time, you don't need to cut recovery out of your fitness routine (nor should you). Instead, you simply need to find techniques that work best for your schedule. One recovery technique that doesn’t take time out of your day is joint compression for knee pain.

If you suffered knee injuries in the past, wearing a compression sleeve can help prevent injuries and provide joint pain relief. Below, I'll explain the science of joint compression, different types of knee sleeves, and why knee support is essential to injury prevention. 

Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before purchasing a knee sleeve or brace, please consult your physical therapist about the best options for you.

What Is Joint Compression Gear?

Athlete wearing compression for knee pain

Joint compression gear is very tight clothing or gear meant to compress your muscles or joints. Commonly made from nylon or spandex, the tightening effect helps improve blood flow to the covered area.

Compression gear can be small (such as compression socks or sleeves) or large (such as full-length compression pants or a long-sleeve compression shirt). You can wear compression gear during physical activity (this has been linked to improved athletic performance) or after a workout to help with recovery. 

Personally, I'm a fan of both. If you're prone to injury, I encourage you to wear a knee sleeve during exercise to give extra support to the knee joint. In addition, wearing a compression sleeve after exercise can speed up post-workout recovery. Best of all, wearing a compression sleeve takes zero time or effort — simply pull it over your knee, and the material provides added support. I’ll dive into the science of how it works below. 

Common Questions for Compression for Knee Pain

Knee sleeves and knee braces both help with injuries but are often confused. To help you understand the respective benefits and how to use each one, let’s answer some common questions.

Is a Knee Sleeve the Same as a Knee Brace?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: While they're similar in appearance (and easily confused), a knee sleeve is different than a knee brace. While both sleeves and braces can support your joint, there's one key difference you should know about.

A knee brace helps repair a past injury — such as a medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury or meniscus tear — while a knee sleeve works to prevent future injuries from happening. 

How Does a Knee Brace Work?

A knee brace might have hinges (i.e. a hinged knee brace) or mechanical support. The brace is meant to force you into slower movement patterns or encourage you to shift your weight off the most damaged portion of your knee. Over time, this will help to increase your range of motion or decrease your arthritis pain, depending on your core issues.

You should work directly with your doctor to find a brace that's best for you. There are many types of knee braces — in physical therapy, your practitioner will determine which one is best suited for your injury.

Who Should Wear a Knee Brace?

If you experienced a traumatic knee injury or have osteoarthritis, a knee brace is recommended over a compression sleeve. For example, if you had LCL (lateral collateral ligament) surgery, knee sprain, or an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear, your kneecap will need far more support than a knee compression sleeve can provide. Always speak to your physical therapist about finding the best knee brace for your recovery process. 

How Does a Knee Sleeve Work?

A knee sleeve, like other forms of compression gear, is made of stretchy fabric that slides over the joint. Essentially, the material "compresses" a joint or muscle, sending blood flood to the impacted area. This improves blood circulation, prevents swelling, and reduces post-exercise soreness. 

Research also shows compression sleeves help improve proprioception, more commonly called body awareness. Enhancing your mind-body connection can help prevent faulty movement patterns. In other words, it helps you develop proper exercise form. Lastly, a knee support sleeve can act as a stabilizer, as it helps improve your balance and range of motion. 

Who Should Wear a Knee Sleeve?

​If you have mild knee pain, such as tendonitis, runner's knee, or jumper's knee, a compression knee sleeve might be preferred over a medical-grade brace. In addition, if you are an avid athlete — particularly one who puts considerable pressure on your joints like during CrossFit, powerlifting, or Olympic lifting — a compression sleeve may help you stay injury-free.

CrossFit athletes, distance runners, and those who make weightlifting a regular part of their training often find knee pain relief through compression sleeves. While it’s tempting to just buy a knee sleeve from Amazon, I recommend speaking with your physical therapist about the right compression sleeve for you.

3 More Strategies to Combat Knee Pain 

While I support using compression sleeves for recovery and injury prevention, it's not the only tool to prevent or treat knee pain. If you are no stranger to knee problems, try the following lifestyle changes to provide lasting relief:

1. Don't Stop Exercising

I fully support rest as a strategy for injury prevention and recovery. However, regular physical activity is crucial to increase your range of motion (joint mobility) and provide pain relief — even for those suffering from a chronic joint condition like osteoarthritis.

Science shows that regular exercise can help fight — not worsen — joint pain. Unfortunately, only 27% of people who suffer from knee osteoarthritis participate in a regular exercise program. If you're looking for guidance, you might start with this program.

2. Watch Your Weight 

Science shows that weight gain can worsen knee pain and cause a progression of osteoarthritis. To keep a healthy weight, follow a regular exercise program and eat nutrient-dense, whole foods. For supplements to help overhaul your diet, consider the 4 Legs Fitness Complete Health Pack, which comes with hydrolyzed protein, electrolytes, and recovery supplements.

3. Consider Low-Impact Exercises 

If you are an athlete who suffers from knee pain, you may want to mix low-impact exercises into your training routine. Otherwise, shift your training to focus on injury-free muscle groups. 

If you typically run on pavement, swap out a few runs for swimming laps in the pool. Or, considering doing various HIIT exercises on a padded surface such as a turf field, dirt path, or carpet. If jumping and bounding aggravate your joints, try low-impact strength training moves. You can trade in squat jumps for bodyweight squats or tuck jumps for lunges.

Compression Sleeves Can Lessen Knee Pain, But They’re Not the Only Solution

Person stands behind barbell

Compression sleeves help decrease joint pain and recovery times post-workout. They work by increasing blood flow to the affected area, thereby improving circulation. While joint compression sleeves can help increase mobility, body awareness, and recovery, they should not be confused with joint braces. Braces are recommended for post-surgery patients who need more support for the joint.

While compression sleeves take zero time and effort to use, they're not the only tactic for combatting knee pain. People who exercise regularly, follow a healthy diet, factor in recovery techniques, and participate in low-impact exercises are likely to experience less pain than those who don't. 

Use compression gear for recovery, follow a regular exercise program of strength and cardio exercises, and eat whole foods through a well-balanced diet. When you follow these strategies, which are all in my Build Bullet-Proof Health program, you can better avoid injuries while you improve your athletic performance.


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