When I asked Jim Harbaugh on Wednesday how exactly the brace on Justin Smith's left arm will protect him from further damage, he suggested I speak to the brace manufacturer.
So I did.
Smith's brace, made by DonJoy, weighs about 16 ounces, is made of hollow carbon fiber and is very similar to the DonJoy brace being worn by Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis to protect his still-healing triceps. In fact, there's a fraternity of players - Brace Brothers, if you will - wearing one this weekend, which is odd because triceps/elbow injuries have been relatively rare to this point in the NFL.
J.J. Watt, who suffered a dislocated elbow in the offseason, is wearing a DonJoy brace on his left arm. DJO Global representative Brian Moore said other players in the playoffs also are wearing such a brace, but he couldn't provide their names because the fact that they're wearing elbow braces hasn't become public knowledge yet. (Watt has since recovered from his elbow injury but has continued to wear the brace so that his grandmother can better pick him out on the field; As if he needed help in winning defensive player of the year).
Smith's brace, called the CE Elbow Brace, isn't exactly the same as Lewis' and Watts' because each was custom fit to the player's arm. A representative from DonJoy took measurements of Smith's arm and the brace was built within 24 hours. "A lot of times a guy will be injured on Sunday, and the team will want him in a brace Monday," Moore said. "They want it yesterday."
Smith, of course, has a partially torn triceps tendon, which attaches the triceps to the elbow on the back of the arm. The size of the tear - whether it's above or below 50 percent torn - has a huge bearing on everything from how much strength Smith has in the arm to recovery time to his risk of suffering a complete rupture. Harbaugh also declined to discuss the size of the tear.
The brace is designed to limit both the extension and the flexion of the arm, both of which put stress on the triceps tendon. The brace also keeps the upper arm and forearm better aligned. "They don't want that thing to move anywhere but perfectly in track," Moore said.
And while it's virtually indestructible, the brace is not foolproof when it comes to preserving Smith's tendon. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, for example, was wearing a knee brace built on the same principles as Smith's elbow brace when he further damaged his knee Sunday. Smith has said he understands the risks involved.
"There's no guarantee," Moore said. "We're talking about an injury. It's like trying to guarantee that a concussion won't happen while wearing a helmet."
I'll be hosting a 49ers chat today at noon. All questions -- except: Do you think the 49ers can trade Alex Smith for X -- are welcome. In addition to the 49ers, I'm also knowledgeable about ornithology, land mammals and the Civil War. Www.sacbee.com/live.
- Matt Barrows