As a sports medicine physician, my goal is to keep my patients moving and active. Every day in my office, I see people coming in with achy knees, from 8-year-old gymnasts to 82-year-old marathon runners. No matter their age, each of my patients has a common objective, they want to keep moving.
When it comes to healthy movement, knees are an essential part of the equation.
Understanding what’s inside your knees, and how to protect and care for them, is important to anyone who wants to stay active. Our Guide to Your Knees in the New York Times is a project designed to teach you how to take the best possible care of your knees. We’ve included exercises to help treat and prevent knee pain, information about current science of knee care including topics such as stem cells and nutritional supplements, and evidence-based information about what questions you should be asking when you’re seeing a doctor for your knees. Our guide is designed to help each of you make the best decisions, and ask the right questions, and take the best care of your knees.
When should you see a doctor about your achy knee?
I tell my patients that if pain is changing the way you move it’s important to get it checked out. Meaning, if you’re a runner and you’re having trouble running because your knee hurts, it just makes other problems worse if you wait too long to get it checked out.
Here are some knee issues to be aware of:
1. Knee pain from a growth spurt
People think about adults with knee pain but we also commonly see teens with knee pain, especially when they go through their growth spurt. This causes a loss of muscle flexibility and a pulling or pain sensation at the growth plate in the knee called Osgood-Schlatter. Knee issues are most common in teen athletes during periods of growth (for girls, age 10-14; for boys, age 12-14).
How to fix it: The ways to fix a knee with Osgood-Schlatter include getting on a foam roller to loosen the muscles around the leg and using a knee strap to keep the pressure off of the tibial tubercle, the area of the knee that's made of cartilage and hurts with jumping and running.
2. Runner's knee
Runner’s knee is the most common cause of knee pain in young adults. It is caused by the kneecap (patella) rubbing against the femur (thigh). You don’t have to be a runner to get runner’s knee. The classic symptoms are an ache underneath your kneecap as you go up and down the stairs. This issue commonly occurs in active people, age 20-60.
How to fix it: The ways to fix runner's knee include building up the muscles in the leg which helps the patella stop rubbing against the femur bone and also shortening your walking or running stride. When the stride is shortened it puts less loading force on the patella and the pain reduces.
3. Arthritis in the knees
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, it is a wear and tear of the lining of the joint. It is the most common cause of knee pain in people over 50 and can limit their activity. The main point to emphasize here is that we don’t want an arthritic knee to cause health problems. Sitting at the kitchen table and feeling sorry for yourself is the worst thing you can do! Moving an arthritic knee, and strengthening the muscles around the knee, can make a huge difference.
How to fix it: Try these exercises outlined below:
- Monster walks: Get a resistance band and put it around both ankles. Then slightly bend your knees and take small steps sideways. This is a great way to build the muscles on the sides of the hip, and thus, supporting the knee.
- Squatting from a chair: This is a great way to safely squat, and a great way to start building the quads and hips. Stand in front of the chair with your arms out straight and sit back until you feel the chair, then come back up. Don't get too comfy, the key is to lightly touch the chair and come back up.
- Biking: This a great way to keep the knees and hips moving while also building strength. I recommend 30 minutes a day, as often as you can.
Dr. Jordan Metzl is a renowned sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. In addition to his medical practice, he is the author of five book about the intersection of fitness and medicine including The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies. He can be followed on Instagram.