The muscles that protect the knees are the quadriceps (front of thighs) and the hamstrings (back of the thighs). We tend to lose muscle strength as we age, which forces our joints to absorb some of the impact our muscles used to cushion. Also, cartilage – the tough, connective tissue that cushions our joints – starts to wear away over time, leaving less of a cushion in the knees and hips. Without this cushion, bones begin to feel painful because there are nerve fibers in bones.
There are several things you can do to spare your knees from damage. The first and most important is to lose weight if you are heavy. For every extra pound you carry, the pressure on your knees increases by four pounds. That means a small weight gain can have a big influence on your knees. Ten pounds of extra weight puts 40 pounds of pressure on your knees. Just lift a 20-pound carton of kitty litter and see how your knees feel.
Another way to protect knees from stress and strain is to condition them with strengthening exercises and stretching. Stretching and warm-up exercises before participating in sports or recreational activities can keep your knees and the muscles that support them strong and flexible.
You don’t have to be a downhill skier to damage your knees. Even many gardening tasks require knee strength and stability, whether kneeling, sitting, standing, or walking. Try to avoid the activities that are hard on your joints, such as running or jogging. Activities that are easy on your knees include walking, swimming or water aerobics, cycling and using the elliptical machine at the gym. Alternate your workouts so you don’t use the same muscle groups two days in a row.
Always give your body time to recover from repetitive activities, which can fatigue the muscles around your joints and cause inflammation. Not allowing your body time to recover from repetitive activities increases risk of injury.
If you do find pain or swelling in your knee, immediately stop your activity. To treat an early injury, remember the acronym “R.I.C.E,” which stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Rest the injured area for 48 hours, which means you may need to stay off your leg completely for a knee injury. Place an ice pack on the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Compression can help reduce the swelling – ask your doctor what type of bandage works best. Keeping the knee elevated above the level of your heart can also help reduce the swelling. If the pain doesn't go away or it returns and your activity is limited by the pain, you should see a doctor.
If you hear a loud “pop” and your knee buckles, causing severe pain, see your doctor immediately.
Marilyn Ranson is a public relations specialist at NorthBay Healthcare in Fairfield, a member of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.