The knee is a complex joint made up of bones, ligaments, cartilage and fluid. Tendons and muscles surround and support the knee, and injury or disease involving any of these components can cause pain or disability. Although it may seem that moving the knee while having pain or other knee-related symptoms is not a good idea, doing focused exercises can go a long way in alleviating symptoms and preventing future problems.
How Exercise Helps Common Knee Problems
Strong and flexible muscles absorb the stress that is exerted on the knees every day. According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, muscle weakness and a lack of flexibility are major causes of knee injuries. Common injuries include torn cartilage, ruptured ligaments, tendinitis, bursitis and kneecap dislocation or fracture. When knee structures are injured, exercises are typically included throughout the healing process as a major part of treatment—not only to help the current injury, but to help prevent problems down the road.
The most common disease that affects the knees is osteoarthritis. Throughout the years, wear and tear causes cartilage to deteriorate, and ultimately the bones in the knee rub together. Pain, stiffness and swelling are typical symptoms, and the goals of treatment are to minimize pain and maximize functioning. Having weak muscles worsens pain and limits range of motion.
Researchers have found that in some instances, exercise is comparable to surgery for some knee problems. Older adults sometimes have tears in the meniscus associated with arthritis. Surgical repair has typically been standard treatment for such cartilage damage. But a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospitals in Boston showed that while surgery may be the best option for some, physical therapy can produce the same long-term outcomes as surgery when it comes to pain reduction and improved daily function.
Exercise Safety Tips
Anyone with knee pain should be evaluated by a healthcare provider or physical therapist before beginning knee exercises. Once you’ve decided to start, here are some tips for success:
- Stretch before and after exercising.
- Gradually increase the number of repetitions of each exercise as your muscles get stronger.
- Discomfort is normal, but stop exercising if moderate to severe pain occurs.
- Don’t do too much in one day. Stiffness the day after exercise is normal, but if pain inhibits movement, rest your muscles a day or two.
- Do exercises on both legs, even if your other knee is fine.
Seek medical attention if any of the following occurs:
- An inability to bear weight on your affected leg
- Fever, redness, swelling or pain
- Your knee gives out and you fall
- You can’t fully extend your leg
The Best Exercises
Activities that stretch and strengthen the quadriceps (large muscles on the front of the thighs) and hamstrings (muscles in the back of the thighs) are key components in a knee exercise program. The following sample exercises, which focus on stretching, strengthening and knee stabilization, are adapted from a knee strengthening program published by the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Quadriceps stretch: Place your hands on the wall of the back of a chair. Raise one heel to your buttocks while keeping your back straight (not arched). Using your hand, pull your heel closer to your body until you can feel the stretch. Hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
Hamstring Stretch: Sit on the floor with both legs extended. Put the palms of your hands flat on the floor and slowly slide them down to your ankles until you feel the stretch. Keep your head up and do not round your back. Hold position for 30 seconds.
Straight-leg Lift: Lie on your back with one leg straight and one knee bent. Keeping your back flat, raise the straight leg to about 12 inches off the floor and hold for three to five seconds. Lower that leg and repeat exercise with the other leg.
Hamstring Curl: This exercise is similar to the quadriceps stretch, but it works the hamstrings. While keeping your hands on the wall or the back of a chair, raise your heel to the level of your buttocks (without using your hand to support the foot). Hold position for three to five seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Wall Squats: Stand with your hips, back and head against a wall. Step out until your feet are about two feet from the wall and about 12 inches apart. Slide slowly down the wall into a sitting position and hold for five to ten seconds. Slowly slide back up.
Step Ups: Use a sturdy platform or stool that’s about six inches high. Step completely up onto the platform with one foot and then raise your other foot off the floor and let it hang there for three to five seconds. Step back down to the floor with the hanging leg first, then the other leg. Switch sides and repeat.
A physical therapist or doctor can suggest the best exercises and treatments for your specific knee problem.
For certain people, some knee pain is inevitable. With proper conditioning, however, further injury may be avoided and the complications of some diseases, such as arthritis, can be slowed down. Losing weight can also greatly reduce the pressure placed on the knees, and a healthful diet can optimize the healing process. Most importantly, people with knee pain should have regular follow-up visits with a healthcare practitioner.