Preventing Knee Injury and Knee Pain
If you have had knee pain, you know it can be aggravating at the very least and debilitating at worst. Whether your knee pain is a result of arthritis or a temporary injury, there are steps you can take to alleviate and protect against it. In come cases, you can avoid knee pain altogether!
Recent data suggest that exercise, including techniques for strengthening and stretching muscles that support the knees, as well as physical therapy often are as effective as surgical options for relieving arthritis knee pain.1
Understanding Your Knees
Your knees are comprised of 4 bones, with the thigh bone (or femur) at the top of the joint and 2 leg bones (the tibula and fibula) making up the lower part of the joint. On the top of the knee, a fourth bone known as the patella slides in a shallow groove on the end of the femur. Four main bands of tough but flexible, stretchy connective tissue (much like strong rubberbands) connect the femur to the tibia and help hold the knee bones together to create a moveable, hinge-like structure that rotates as it bends. Because of its unique ability to rotate and bend, the knee is known as a swivel joint.
Other structures in your knee include fibrous bands of tissue known as tendons that connect muscles to bones. The knee has 2 major tendons— the quadriceps tendon, which connects the long quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh to the patella, and the patellar tendon, which connects the patella to the tibia. Both the quadriceps and patellar tendons enable you to straighten and extend your leg. The hamstrings muscles at the back top of the leg also help stabilize the knee joint.
Your knee also includes the meniscus — C-shaped cartilage that curves around the in- and outside of the knee and cushions the joint. Fluid-filled sacs called bursae surround the knee, help cushion the joint, and allow the ligaments and tendons to slide smothly across it.
Altogether, the ligaments, tendons, and muscles support and stablize your knee joint. Weakness in any of them increases the likelihood of an injury to the joint.
To help prevent knee injury and knee pain:
- Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight places excess stress on all your joints, especially those of the hips, lower back, knees, ankles, and feet. Excess stress on joints can increase your risk of osteoarthritis. In addition, studies show that people who are overweight tend to have weaker quadricep muscles that help support the knee.
- Wear supportive, stable, well-fitted shoes
In addition to increasing the pressure on your knees, wearing high heels can tighten and shorten your calf muscles — a condition that can pull the foot too far inward (overpronation). When feet pronate excessively, the arch of the foot can collapse and cause the lower leg to roll inward, stressing the ankle and knee. Flat shoes or shoes with 1-inch or shorter heels, shoes that fit well and keep your foot from sliding left to right and front to back, and shoes with a cushioned sole are ideal for protecting your knees. Shoes with a rubber, nonslip sole can help prevent you from sliding on slippery surfaces, which also can injure your knees. If you walk, run, and exercise regularly, change your workout shoes every 3 months or more often to ensure there is enough cushion to protect your knees as well as your feet, ankles, hips, and back.
- Keep leg, hip, butt, and core muscles strong
Having strong muscles overall helps protect all your joints, including your knees. Strong core muscles are the foundation of good posture and healthy skeletal alignment, both of which are necessary to equally distribute pressure on joints and protect knees from sustaining too much pressure. Strong hip, leg, and butt muscles are especially good for taking the pressure off your knees.
- Gently and regularly stretch the muscles that support your knees
Stretching your calf, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, and butt muscles helps promote flexibility and joint mobility. Studies show that staying flexible overall is key to maintaining healthy joints as you age.
- Avoid kneeling on hard surfaces without knee pads or a cushion
Kneeling on hard surfaces and repetitive kneeling can compress and damage the bursae (bursitis) that cushion and protect your ligaments and tendons.
When You Have Knee Pain
If you have knee tenderness or knee pain, see your doctor. He or she can help determine what is causing the pain and, in many cases, recommend nonsurgical options such as icing, elevating, compressing, and resting the knee. In some cases, your doctor might recommend physical therapy to help increase your flexibility and strengthen the muscles that help support your knee. Although severe knee problems can benefit from surgery, your doctor is likely to recommend nonsurgical options first and whenever possible to relieve your pain.
Pisters MF, et al. Exercise adherence improving long-term patient outcome in patients with osteoarthritis of the hip and/or knee. Arth Care Res. 2010. 62(8); 1087-1094.