A lot of people complain about their knees. Some of the things that go wrong with this joint — the largest one in your body and one of the most complex — are inevitable, it seems. Especially when pain is caused by osteoarthritis, a degenerative disease of the cartilage. But your knees are subjected to a lot of stress as you walk, run, and bend. To protect them, it helps to learn a bit about how the knee works and what can go wrong.
The knee is made up of three bones: the thigh bone, shin bone, and kneecap. Four ligaments connect them. These bands of fibrous tissue stabilize the joint. Cartilage is a smooth, slippery substance that decreases friction and provides shock absorption. There are two kinds of it in your knees: joint cartilage covers the ends of the bones; the menisci are horseshoe-shaped pieces of cartilage that sit between the thigh and shin bones. Tendons are what connect muscles to bones. There are two muscle groups that connect to your knees: the quads, which straighten the leg and the hamstrings, which bend it.
All of this structure is about making just those two motions — the knee is a hinge joint, built to handle only minimal sideways or rotational movement. Many traumatic injuries occur when something forces the knee to twist or bend sideways. You’ve seen these happen: an athlete turns quickly when the foot is planted or collides with another player. Torn ligaments or a torn meniscus follow.
But what most people worry about is knee pain that comes on gradually. With osteoarthritis, the cartilage thins out and becomes rough rather than smooth. Now its friction-reducing and shock-absorbing qualities are decreased, and the joint becomes stiff, swollen, and painful. I can’t offer good solutions to this type of degenerative problem.
Tendinitis is another story. Repetitive motion or overtraining can bring it on. Be sure you increase your training time and intensity gradually, to avoid too much stress on the muscle and tendon — whether quad or hamstring.
There is also one other important way to take care of your knees: strength training. It can help you avoid injuries. One of the most effective is the squat, which targets your major leg muscles and core. Although it’s a great exercise, make sure your technique is good. Squatting with poor form can cause injuries.
Stand with feet and knees shoulder width apart. Put your weight back in your heels and squat, bending your hips and knees as far as you can comfortably, and keeping your back straight and your chest up. Don’t let your knees move toward the center. Rise by pushing your feet into the floor and extending your hips and knees as you exhale. You should feel the work in your leg and butt muscles; you should not feel discomfort in your knee joints.
Start with two sets of 8-15 repetitions. If that’s too easy, add weights or kettle bells to increase the resistance, or do them in ways that challenge your balance. You could use a balance trainer (like a BOSU — “both sides up” — ball) or even just do your squats on beach sand.
If free-standing squats are too hard, there’s another approach: the wall sit. Stand with your back against the wall, heels 12-18 inches away from it, feet and knees shoulder width apart. Now, bend your knees and slide down into a sitting position, but go only as low as you can go comfortably. Maintain the distance between your knees and don’t allow them to move further forward than your toes. Lower and hold the wall sit for 20 seconds, gradually progressing to 60.
After these squats, it’s a good idea to give your quads some love with a stretch. Stand on your right leg and bend your left knee, lifting your foot behind you. Take hold of your left foot or ankle and gently pull the foot toward your buttock. Hold for 30 seconds, then relax and repeat on the other leg.