Knee Pain Causes and Care

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Apr 6, 2015

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As one of the body’s primary weight-bearing joints, our knees are responsible for our freedom of movement. In addition to this gift of mobility, they also help us keep our balance. However, we rarely think about the wellbeing of these joints , unless we suffer from knee pain.

By their very nature, knees are vulnerable joints, but, regardless of age or fitness level, it is possible to strengthen them and care for issues like pain and inflammation. Here, we break down the most common types of knee pain and injuries, and how to manage them.

UNDERSTANDING THE KNEE JOINT

Let’s take a quick trip back to primary school biology: The knee is located at the juncture of two important bones, femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (shin bone). The knee is primarily made of cartilage, or rather, a smooth connective tissue that acts as a bridge by sheathing the ends of these bones. A second cartilage, called the meniscus, sits separately between the two bones and acts as a shock absorber. Bursae, or fluid-filled sacs, supply extra cushioning, and ligaments hold everything together. Most mild knee injuries stress one of these components; severe ones tear or snap them.

REPETITIVE STRESS OR SPORTS INJURIES

This tends to affect younger and highly active people – especially runners and other athletes – when general wear and tear to the joint’s soft cartilage results in chronic knee pain. Most cases can be treated at home over time, but some severe cases may require surgery.

Prevention & Pain Management

If you’re doing any activity that requires frequent repetition, such as running or walking, you’re susceptible to this kind of injury. You can avoid it by keeping your knees strong, which should be a top consideration before embarking on a steady fitness program.

“Just as you can’t hope to build a skyscraper on a flimsy foundation, you can’t build a fit body unless you focus on strengthening your knees and the muscles around this area first,” says Dr. Ruchira Tendolkar, certified strength and conditioning coach and technical director at BFY Sports & Fitness, Mumbai.

Dr. Tendolkar recommends doing weight-bearing exercises three to four times a week to train your quadriceps, the muscles that run down the front of the thigh from the hip to the knee. Weight training for hamstrings, which run down the back of the thigh from the hip to the knee, and the calf muscles are also helpful on a similar schedule.

While doing these exercises, be mindful of your posture, Dr. Tendolkar advises, as a correct stance – knees aligned with your toes – can do much to prevent stress injuries. Good rest and nutrition after working out is also critical, she says, as is frequent stretching and proper warm-ups and cool-downs pre- and post-activity.

“Depending on the intensity of exercise, you must give yourself 24 to 48 hours of rest before resuming your workout,” Dr. Tendolkar says. “Good quality of sleep is important to repair the wear and tear on the knees and to strengthen the muscles around it.”

ACCIDENTAL INJURIES

Any accident that causes sudden impact and severe injury to the knee can be extremely painful. If the initial knee pain subsides, you may be tempted to ignore the injury and continue with life as usual. But this isn’t a good idea, as it can lead to a worse injury  down the road. If you experience a bad blow or consistent, sharp knee pain, investigate its cause by getting a CT scan or MRI, advises Dr. Madhujeet Gupta, consultant pain physician at PSRI hospital, New Delhi.

Prevention & Pain Management

Apart from being cautious, there’s nothing much you can do to avoid accidental injuries. But if and when one occurs, you can do much to keep it under control.

“To reduce the swelling, apply an ice pack to the injured knee soon after impact,” Dr. Gupta says.

Once the swelling is under control, Dr. Gupta suggests applying a hot pack, which will help ease any knee pain.

However, you should know that not all sudden knee pain originates from the knee. Sometimes a problem in your spine, such as a prolapsed disc or a pinched nerve, can cause pain to radiate out to other parts of the body, says Dr. Gupta. If you’re experiencing frequent knee pain, but doctors’ scans have found nothing amiss with the joint, consider a detailed examination of the spine.

“One way to tell if your pain originates in the knee is to ask yourself if it increases when you move,” says Dr. Gupta. “If your pain is a constant, dull ache that doesn’t increase with activity, then it could be caused by a spinal problem.”

OSTEOARTHRITIS OF THE KNEE

It’s the most common knee problem for people above the age of 50, though younger people can have it, too. Osteoarthritis causes a slow degeneration of the cartilage coating in your knee, leaving bones to grate painfully against each other with no cushion. Severe joint pain, stiffness and restricted mobility are all early symptoms. If untreated, chronic knee pain is the ultimate outcome.

Prevention & Pain Management

Osteoarthritis is usually a genetic condition, but it can be triggered by a severe injury as well. While surgery can provide relief for severe cases, most cases of osteoarthritis are treated with medication and injections to replace the fluid in the knee, thereby preventing further wear and tear.

OBESITY-RELATED ISSUES

Obesity poses a classic Catch-22 when it comes to knee care: If you’re overweight, your knees are under tremendous stress, but because you have knee pain, you can’t exercise to shed those excess kilos. The solution to this is to acquasize, or rather, do vertical exercises in water, says Dr. Tendolkar. Water relieves pressure on the joints while still giving you a resistance workout, allowing you to lose weight without further damaging your knees. And since the water need only be hip deep, you don’t even need to be an expert swimmer.

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Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t

See all articles by Kamala

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