Selecting a shoulder brace is not an easy process. You can select a shoulder support for any shoulder injury and in varying support levels for each injury. Shoulder braces are also difficult to size correctly because every person has a different body type (i.e. thin/heavy,short/tall,male/female,muscular/normal). Since most shoulder braces are sized using simply chest circumference you can see why it's hard to get a shoulder support that fits perfectly. In this blog we will try to make the shoulder brace selection process easier. If you have any suggestions based on your experience please share them in the comments following the blog.
Select by Support Level
There are many support rating schemes to rate shoulder brace support levels. I prefer to rate support levels as basic, moderate and high.
Basic Support: These shoulder braces are usually smaller and can be made of a stretch fabric or light neoprene. They are good for wearing during the normal work day and during sleep because they are fairly comfortable. When selecting a basic shoulder support to wear long periods of time I recommend looking at the strap that holds the brace in place. Is it wide or narrow and where does it cut across the chest? Some of the shoulder supports have narrow straps that cut right across the chest. That is not comfortable, especially for the ladies. If the basis shoulder brace is made of neoprene you may be in for a long day because neoprene makes you sweat.
Moderate Support: Moderate shoulder braces made of neoprene usually cover more shoulder area and are made of a thicker neoprene. The more comfortable fabric versions usually have more than one strap. One of the top selling shoulder braces in the world is the McDavid 462R Universal Shoulder Support. It is made from thermal neoprene to help retain therapeutic body heat, which helps to promote healing. This shoulder support works especially well for athletes because it provides good support and yet allows for shoulder movement. As with the basic support level I'd recommend a stretch fabric style if you intend to wear the brace for extended periods of time.
High Support: The high support level shoulder brace is normally used for post operative recovery or to completely immobilize the shoulder joint. These are not really designed to be used for any activity or sport involving shoulder mobility.
Select by Type of Injury
Clavicle or Posture Related Injury: If you are like me, you spend a lot of time at a desk or working at a computer. The natural tendency over time is for the shoulders to slump forward. This tendency over time can cause an impingement in the front of the shoulder joint. Needless to say, the real solution to this is physical therapy involving strengthening the core, upper back and shoulder muscles. A short term solution is a clavicle or posture support. These supports are usually made of fabric or a combination of fabric/stretch elastic. If you buy a cheap clavicle brace be careful because some do not have proper padding and are very uncomfortable where they cross the front of your shoulders. As with a shoulder brace look for wider straps because they are more comfortable.
Rotator Cuff / Joint Injuries: These shoulder braces hold the shoulder joint in place and provides soft tissue support through compression. The type of shoulder brace to select depends on intended use and severity of the injury. If it is just a minor injury a " basic level" stretch fabric support will work and the gentle pressure will remind you to "cool it" and not make any sudden shoulder movements that could cause further damage. If you have a slightly more severe injury or are using your shoulder for fitness or athletic activity, you should use a moderate level neoprene shoulder brace or top level stretch fabric shoulder support. For severe injuries your doctor will probably recommend immobilizing the shoulder for periods of time to prevent further injury.
Arthritis / Frozen Shoulder: Arthritis of the shoulder is a very common condition affecting athletes and none athletes alike. Some of my "baby boomer" friends also suffer from what is commonly called a frozen shoulder. When periods of inactivity occur (ie after sleeping) the shoulder tends to be very stiff and painful to move. I have found the best treatment is heat therapy shoulder wrap which gets the blood flowing in the joint and helps loosen it up. Fortunately there are some new products that are very easy to use and relatively inexpensive. Please note they are designed to provide heat therapy for you shoulder, not support.
Please check out our shoulder injury resource center for more information about specific shoulder injuries. In future blogs I will review some of the best shoulder rehabilitation exercises.