Arthritis sufferers could be spared the ordeal of surgery thanks to a ‘Robocop’ brace that supports the knee, restoring movement and alleviating pain, even in severe cases.
The brace, made from lightweight plastic and soft fabric, can be worn under trousers and uses strapping that exerts a gentle sideways pull, helping to align the joint.
A hinge that sits on the side of the knee takes some of the downward force, and the combined effect allows patients to carry out activities normally and more frequently.
Arthritis sufferers could be spared the ordeal of surgery thanks to a ‘Robocop’ brace that supports the knee. The same style of brace has been worn by TV star Ant McPartlin, 41
A landmark study published earlier this year followed 63 patients who wore a so-called unloading or offloading brace. All were awaiting total knee replacement (TKR) surgery.
The patients were followed up after eight years, and of those who wore their brace consistently for two years, 40 per cent no longer felt they needed an operation.
The same style of brace – the Unloader One, made by Icelandic company Ossur – has been worn by TV star Ant McPartlin, 41. He recently revealed his struggle with painkiller-addiction following ‘botched’ knee surgery.
NHS watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence now advises that all patients should be offered a brace as an option before surgery, and last week British swimming legend Sharron Davies told The Mail on Sunday how wearing an Unloader One has allowed her to avoid a TKR.
Eight million Britons suffer with knee osteoarthritis – often dubbed ‘wear and tear’ arthritis – with rates rising in younger patients due to increased sports and activity or previous knee injury.
About 150,000 knee operations are conducted in the UK each year, with just over half being TKRs. The total NHS bill for knee replacements is about £419 million a year.
However, the eight-year study found long-term use of the Unloader One can delay and reduce the amount of surgical intervention needed among those patients with unicompartmental knee osteoarthritis, in which wear and tear occurs on one side of the joint only.
Relief: Former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies favours wearing a brace over an operation
In the study, patients wore the brace almost constantly for two years, then selectively during activities where they wanted extra support. Those who wore it for more than six months were half as likely to require surgery as those who wore it for under three months.
Knee surgeon Paul Lee, at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Centre, Exeter, and co-author of the study, says: ‘Waiting lists for knee-replacement surgery are now often longer than a year.
Given the results in this study, there is no reason why patients shouldn’t be given an unloading knee brace while they are waiting. It helps them return to work and live a normal life while waiting for surgery – and some will even avoid it entirely.’
He adds: ‘The effect may be due to some kind of healing or retraining of the muscles. The new generation braces look quite cool, too – a bit like Robocop – which is particularly popular with younger patients.’
Delaying knee surgery brings its own benefits. Mr Lee says: ‘The earlier you have a foreign material in your body, the longer you’re exposing yourself to a possible infection over time, and the greater the chance you’ll require revision surgery at some point.’
Amit Chandratreya, a sports knee surgeon at Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend, and co-author of the study, has been using unloading braces for his patients since 2007. He says: ‘When patients use a brace, their gait and confidence improve, and the pain around the knee reduces dramatically, meaning far less medication is needed.’
Former Olympic medal-winning swimmer-turned-presenter Sharron Davies, 54, started wearing an unloading brace in 2012. She says: ‘I suffered a knee injury when I was 12, and again while filming the TV show Gladiators in the mid-1990s – I snapped a ligament.
‘After nine knee operations, I have since been diagnosed with unicompartmental osteoarthritis. The inside of my knee joint is bone on bone as there’s no cartilage left.
‘I was told I needed a knee replacement in 2012 but I was reluctant.
‘As soon as you put the brace on, there is this incredible moment of relief – movements that were painful aren’t any more. It seems to redirect the way your weight is distributed through the knee. I have worn it any time I’m doing something that would make my knee ache, like long dog walks.’
Sharron recently finished filming Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls, and adds: ‘Some of the tasks I had to do involved long, challenging walks, and the Robocop brace really helped.
‘Considering five years ago I was told I’d need a knee replacement, but still haven’t had one, I must be doing pretty well.’