How to Conquer Knee Pain

Standing up slowly, maybe with a little sigh or grunt? No one wants to admit to such a thing. Joints do wear out as we age, but there are things you can do to keep your knees healthy longer.

Joint pain stems from osteoarthritis (OA), a condition marked by the breakdown of cartilage – the connective tissue between bones. Without adequate cartilage, bones rub together, causing discomfort. OA is pretty common; the Arthritis Foundation says it affects 27 million Americans, mostly over 65. And the area most inclined to get OA? The knee: Half of adults will develop symptoms. (Other commonly affected areas include the hips and spine.)

Dr. James Dowd, an orthopedic surgeon at Jordan-Young Institute, an orthopedic practice in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says that knees are the likeliest to have problems because they do complex work—bending, rolling and twisting—and hold up most of our body weight. And if you’re overweight or obese, you’re putting extra strain on them too. “According to data published by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation,” Dowd says, “for every 11-pound weight gain, there is a 36 percent increased risk for developing OA.” Healthy knees are like the rest of healthy bodies generally—they move around and don’t weigh too much.

Before you have significant damage, what can you do to keep your knees happy? None of us can go back to high school and avoid sports injuries, and some accidents will happen. But Dowd says there are lifestyle changes we can make, even as we age, to minimize knee stress.

“Stay moving,” he says. “It’s easy for joints to stiffen when you’re sedentary, so people should make it a point to stay active even if it’s taking a quick walk around the house at the top of every hour.”

Water-based activities can also be particularly good for strengthening knees. The water provides resistance without strain, pushing back against you just a little during movements. Strengthening muscles around your knee (or any joint) helps hold it straight, preventing twists and sprains and other nasty damage. Water aerobics and swimming can all make your knees happier for land-based activities. And they provide cardio workouts with low impact.

Dowd also advises paying attention to how your knees feel. Symptoms usually develop over time, and you’re not doing yourself any favors by waiting too long to see your doctor. “Many women delay treatment until the pain becomes too unbearable to tolerate,” cautions Dowd.

Early intervention means small changes instead of major surgery such as knee replacement. When you start to notice any pain in your knees, it’s time to talk with a doctor about lifestyle or exercise issues. You can start swapping out high impact activities for low impact exercises, and mixing up your exercise routines to work and strengthen different muscles, he says. You don’t have to eliminate a particular activity you love, but with a trainer or physical therapist, you can figure out ways to strengthen the muscles supporting your knee.

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