Whether you're a seasoned athlete, a weekend warrior, or totally laid-back when it comes to exercise, knowing how to protect your knees from damage can mean the difference between an active lifestyle and long-term, strained mobility. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, nearly 25% of adults experience knee pain every year.
A Complex Joint
The knee is a hinge joint joining the femur, tibia and kneecap. It’s held together by four major ligaments – the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the medial collateral ligament (MCL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL). Connective tissue called menisci protects the joint by acting as padding between the bones.
It's hard to find the right balance between mobility and stability, as the knee needs to move back and forth, twist a little, and pivot too. The knee's ligaments can tear, its tendons can swell up, osteoarthritis can take hold, and even everyday wear and tear can ruin a perfectly good set of knees.
A large percentage of active people (particularly those who’ve participated in high impact sports) will begin to notice knee pain in between their late 30s and age 50. Women in particular suffer from some knee problems more commonly than men. They have a much higher prevalence of kneecap alignment issues, likely due to the angle between the hips, the femur and the patella. These issues can start as early as the teen years and lead to arthritis. When women reach their 40s, they can develop chronic patella problems that may make it difficult to climb stairs and squat.
Avoid Knee Problems
There’s a lot you can do to prevent knee injuries and avoid knee pain. Here are some tips:
Don’t ignore pain — When the knees begin to hurt or swell on a regular basis, listen to your body and take a break. Don’t think you can push through the pain. Take time off and try a low-impact sport like cycling or swimming.
Lose weight — The American College of Rheumatology reported in a 2019 study that weight loss had the single biggest impact on reducing knee pain. The knee bears three times a person’s body weight going up stairs and nearly five times the weight going downstairs. Even a five-pound weight loss can make a huge difference in overall knee health.
Strengthen the support muscles — Weak muscles and lack of flexibility are primary causes of knee injuries. When the muscles around the kneecap, hip and pelvis are strong, the knee stays stable and balanced.
Avoid overtraining — Maintaining a base level of well-rounded fitness is key to injury prevention. Whether you’re a runner or a cyclist, you have to look at your whole body’s conditioning.
If you do high-impact sports like running five or more times a week, consider swapping a few workouts with low-impact activities like cycling or swimming to give your knees a break. If you perform endurance sports, increase your distance slowly to avoid injuries.
Protect your ACL — One of the most commonly injured ligaments in the knee, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is responsible for about 150,000 injuries in the U.S. every year according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.
Sports like soccer, basketball, football and volleyball that involve quick cuts, twists and jumping, put the ACL at higher risk for rupturing. . However, neuromuscular training, which involves supervised practice in improving agility, leg strength and jump-landing techniques, has been effective in reducing risks of knee injury.
Athletes of any age who play ACL risk-prone sports should seek help from an athletic trainer or other trained professional to help avoid this debilitating injury.