Bracing and Splinting for Chronic Pain
Braces and splints come in many shapes and sizes. Although they're generally used for acute injuries—keeping a sprained neck, knee or twisted ankle stable, for example—braces and splints can also be used as a treatment option to control chronic pain.
There are 3 main goals of bracing and splinting: Stabilize weak or injured joints, prevent pain and inflammation from getting worse by limiting motion, and provide a measured and gradual force to a joint that is stiff (ankylosed) or contracted due to scar tissue (arthrofibrosis). This form of splinting is referred to as dynamic splinting. All the other applications are static in nature, but dynamic splinting not only stabilize a joint, but also help to provide greater active range of motion (AROM) to that joint via dynamic tension.
Because they're multi-purpose treatments, braces and splints may be beneficial in treating numerous conditions associated with pain.
Below are some conditions that can be treated with braces or splints:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: Wrist splints can help with the pain, tingling, and numbness associated with carpal tunnel syndrome because they prevent your wrist from staying bent in positions that irritate the nerve, especially while you're sleeping.
Low back pain: Braces may be useful for various spine conditions that cause low back pain: Spinal braces are sometimes used to stabilize your lumbar spine (low back), and can provide support and comfort for a wide variety of back injuries.
- Muscle strains or sprains: Elbow, knee, ankle, and foot braces are commonly used for ligament and tendon strains or sprains.
- Neck pain: As with low back pain, braces, such as cervical collars, may be useful for certain spine conditions that cause neck pain: neck injuries (eg, whiplash). Collars are used frequently after neck surgery. Neck braces can be used to keep your cervical spine (neck) stable.
- Osteoarthritis: A knee unloader brace is a common type of brace used for treating osteoarthritis of the knee. It works by taking pressure off the side of the joint that has the arthritis.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: If you have hand or finger pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, special braces can relieve pain and inflammation by supporting joints weakened by this destructive type of arthritis.
- Spinal cord injury: Spinal bracing can be used to stabilize the structures supporting your spine, such as muscles and ligaments.
A brace or splint works best when it's customized—they're not as effective if they don't fit properly. The brace or splint should be comfortable, especially since you may need to wear it at night or perhaps all day.
Your doctor can refer you to a licensed orthotist who will customize a brace or splint for you by determining the right fit, type, and material. Most braces and splints are made of neoprene, metal, and other materials. You may find that one material is more comfortable than the others.
Fortunately, there are very few side effects for bracing and splinting for chronic pain. However, for certain conditions, such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, excessive use of braces or splints can actually lead to stiff joints or weak muscles: Your body may get used to the support of the brace or splint. Superficial skin irritation is another common side effect of frequent brace wearing.
For the brace or splint to be effective, you'll need to follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Also, keep in mind that bracing and splinting are only one part of your treatment plan. To manage your pain, you may also need to take medications and attend regular physical therapy sessions, for example.