About all that Ray Lewis can do on a football field without his elbow brace is his infamous war dance. The brace could end up playing a big part in a huge sports story. Yet somehow, little is known about this piece of medical technology.
The way Lewis was brought back from what was most likely a season-ending injury is a triumph of both the art and science of sports medicine. Mark Smith, the Ravens' head athletic trainer, and his staff not only kept the chance of this happening open with treatment, but their assessment of what would work once he got back on the field has been spot-on.
Lewis has made it through three games playing at his usual high level while adding an emotional element that cannot be quantified.
The brace itself is a custom construction, based off the newest technology from DonJoy. The brace is designed to limit the range of motion at which Lewis' triceps would be most taxed. This specific point is likely determined by functional tests and the knowledge of where Lewis' injury is.
Allowing Lewis to have some confidence that he won't go too far or put too much pressure on the injured area allows him to play normally. Lewis, more than most, is an instinctual player who can't limit his output in-game.
The range of motion can be set using a simple dial, allowing the medical staff to keep the arm inside a safe area at both extension and flexion. For Lewis, it is at the extreme of extension where his triceps is most at risk, so the brace is set to keep him at about 15-20 degrees of flexion. Even though he can't quite straighten the arm completely, Lewis hasn't shown any real limitations on the field.
Likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans wore a very similar brace during the season. The defensive end dislocated his elbow during training camp and the brace allowed him to play without having the elbow put at risk. By midseason, Watt did not medically need the brace, but given how he was playing, it's hard to blame him for keeping it on.
The Miami Dolphins saw linebacker Karlos Dansby play much of the season with a similar brace as well. Dansby played through a torn biceps, the other muscle group of the upper arm. His injury is essentially the mirror image of Lewis', and the brace was set up to limit the opposite end of the range-of-motion scale.
No brace can offer full protection. It increases the chances that a player will not be injured, or more injured in circumstances like Lewis'.
But a case like that of Robert Griffin III reminds us of the worst case. Despite a brace designed to protect Griffin's injured LCL, the rookie quarterback further damaged his knee, spraining his ACL and necessitating surgery. Griffin's brace was designed to protect against a specific injury, and he had another associated injury—something that's impossible to predict.
Braces may look medieval, but they are a case of function over form. Materials have changed, trying to add strength and reduce weight concurrently. While braces are getting better, Chad Snyder, an expert on braces from St. Vincent's Sports Performance in Indianapolis, acknowledged that many athletes still resist them.
"There are some sports where those athletes will not wear them because they feel it will limit their performance," Snyder explained. "There is definitely a psychological component to it, but bracing does provide support and limits vulnerability to a specific joint."
All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.