Know Your Knees
Dr. Jonathan Foret, Orthopaedic Surgeon
Whether you're a professional athlete, a fitness buff or totally unplugged from a regular exercise program, knowing how to protect your knees from injury can mean the difference between a fulfilling lifestyle and years of painful, limited mobility.
Most people don't realize how vulnerable the knees are to injury. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that injuries to knee joints are responsible for sending nearly 15 million Americans to the doctor each year. It's not just athletes who are at risk of injury, knee problems can happen to anyone.
Each knee joint is a complex hinge where the femur (thigh bone), tibia (shin bone), fibula (next to tibia) and kneecap all come together. This hinge joint, which functions as the literal "hinge" between the ground and the rest of your body, is held together and protected by an intricate system of ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and muscle.
It's the complexity of the joint that actually makes it so highly susceptible to injury, it's difficult to find the right balance between mobility and stability. Your knee needs to move back and forth, twist a little, and pivot too – often all at the same time. We place a lot of demands on our knees. Ligaments can tear, cartilage can be damaged, tendons can swell, osteoarthritis can develop and even everyday wear and tear can lead to pain and limited mobility. Ask anyone who has had a knee injury, and they can tell you what a big impact it has on their normal activities.
Because the knees play a pivotal role in keeping you not only mobile, but active and fit, it's easy to see why it's important to do everything you can to keep your knees healthy. Here's a closer look at some of the most common threats to knee health and how to avoid them.
Ignoring knee pain
An occasional, minor ache is common, but when the pain is frequent, and/or limits your ability to do what you normally do, you should see a doctor. It's important to listen to the signals your body is sending you and to never ignore ongoing or recurrent pain.
Every pound of body weight delivers five pounds of force on the knee, so even 10 extra pounds can put a considerable load on those joints. Being overweight also increases your risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knee, a common and often disabling form of arthritis that wears away the knee's protective cushion of cartilage. Although diet and exercise are critical for weight loss, it can be difficult to exercise if your knees hurt. Try low-impact activities that put less stress on the knees, such as water aerobics or a stationary bike.
A sudden increase in intensity or duration of exercise can cause overuse injuries from repetitive strain. Tendonitis and kneecap pain are common symptoms in the knee. The best way to avoid these types of injuries is to allow your body time to recover. Be sure to include stretching exercises before and after working out, and follow intense training days with easy ones to allow for recovery.
Overlooking the muscles around the knee
Weak muscles and lack of flexibility are primary causes of knee injuries, according to study after study. When the muscles around the kneecap, hip, and pelvis are strong, they keep the knee stable and balanced, providing support by absorbing some of the stress exerted on the joint. This is why it's important to build the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, as well as strengthen the body's core muscles.
Neglecting your ACL
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the most commonly injured ligaments in the knee. There are about 150,000 ACL injuries in the U.S. each year. Sports like soccer, basketball, football and volleyball, which involve quick cuts, twists, and jumping, put the ACL at higher risk for rupturing. Women in particular have a two- to eight-times higher risk for ACL tears compared to men, mainly because the way women naturally jump, land, and turn puts greater strain on the ACL. Both male and female athletes can lower their risk of knee injury with targeted training directed at improving agility, leg strength, and jump-landing techniques for better knee joint stability.
Giving your knee time to recover after an injury is critical to avoid future injury and complications. Depending on the type of injury and treatment, recovery from a knee injury could take a week or two, or several months. It's important to follow the advice of your doctor and therapist during this time. All too often, especially with young athletes, we see re-injuries occur because they returned to activity too soon. The knee needs time to heal, and work has to be done to regain strength in the supporting muscles and structures around the knee to prevent another injury.
When it comes to your knees, protect and preserve should be your motto. If you take the time to give your knees attention and protection throughout your life, you'll be much less likely to have serious knee problems, and much more likely to enjoy pain-free movement for many years to come.