Injuries are among the biggest concerns when starting a workout plan. In particular, knee pain is an issue that many people encounter at the outset of a new physical-activity program. But when you’re armed with a bit of knowledge on how to prevent and treat knee pain, you’ll be better equipped to stick with your workouts.
While there are a variety of culprits when it comes to knee pain, osteoarthritis is the most prevalent. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 2 people will experience knee osteoarthritis by age 85. Obesity and lack of activity only will increase your chances of developing the condition.
Another oft-cited source of knee pain is patellofemoral pain syndrome, aka
“runner’s knee.” This condition, which is used to describe general pain in front of the knee and around the kneecap, can afflict everyone from marathon runners to those just starting to exercise. Regardless of the cause, knee pain can knock you off your workout program, not to mention have a negative effect on your overall quality of life.
Here are a few methods of prevention and treatment that have been proved through academic research. Whether you’re looking to head off problems in the first place or you’ve already encountered some knee pain, the results of these recent studies may be the answer to your knee-related afflictions:
1. Strengthen your thighs.
Research suggests that weak front thigh muscles, also known as your quadriceps, can lead to knee pain. When you strengthen those muscles, your knees are stabilized and better able to handle the load that is involved with weight-bearing activities. Since doing the wrong types of strength work can actually lead to increased knee pain, the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy released guidelines for quadriceps exercises. The two main strength moves they suggest for pumping up your thigh muscles are squats and leg extensions. Here’s how to perform both moves safely:
- Squat: With your feet pointed forward and shoulder-width apart, lower your backside down, keeping your back straight. Start by lowering to 45 degrees from a standing position, and progress to 90 degrees as your strength increases.
- Leg Extension: While sitting on a chair with good posture, flex your foot and lift your leg upward, straightening it out in front of your body. If you have trouble getting it straight, start by raising it to 45 degrees until you build more strength.
2. Strengthen your hips.
In addition to strengthening your quadriceps, increasing strength in the muscles around your hips has been shown to reduce knee pain. One recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine found that 12 weeks of hip-strengthening exercises done 3–5 times a week decreased pain and improved quality of life for those with knee osteoarthritis.
Similarly, research has revealed that hip strengthening can be effective in reducing knee pain in patients with patellofemoral pain syndrome. While there are a whole host of hip-strengthening exercises you can do, here are two that are often recommended by trainers and coaches:
- Side Leg Raises: Lie on your side with your legs straight. Slowly lift one leg toward the ceiling until you reach a 45-degree angle. Lower back down and repeat.
- Bridges: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Carefully lift your backside upward until it is in line with your knees. Hold for two seconds, and lower back down.
3. Move more.
A 2015 review looked at more than 50 studies on the subject, finding that any type of land-based exercise can help lessen knee pain and improve function for those with knee osteoarthritis. While it’s always best to consult your doctor regarding what type of activity to engage in, land-based exercises can include everything from walking or jogging to cycling. The key, according to research, is that you stick with exercise for the long haul. If you are already experiencing knee pain, that can be tough, which is why it is important to consult with your physician on the type and amount of activity you should be doing.
4. Change your footwear.
While the jury is still out on what type of footwear may decrease knee pain, it appears that shoes can definitely play a role. Studies have looked at everything from rocker-soled shoes to minimalist “barefoot” footwear in hopes of identifying which might reduce pain. There are also studies that look at whether adding an insole or orthotic to your shoes might cut down on pain. For instance, lateral wedge insoles with arch support, which keep you from excessively rolling to the outside of your feet when you walk, have been shown to reduce pain related to knee osteoarthritis.
What’s more, studies have also demonstrated that insoles can be effective in treating pain caused by patellofemoral pain syndrome. The key is to experiment with various footwear options and see what works for your individual condition. If you’ve had these issues in the past, consider visiting a podiatrist at the outset of an exercise program for help with custom-made orthotics and shoe recommendations.
5. Get in the pool.
A wide variety of aerobic and strength exercises are proven to help prevent and treat knee pain, but hydrotherapy may be one of the best. A 2014 study published in the Annals of Applied Sport Science demonstrates the benefits of aquatic exercise: It provides a low-impact cardiovascular workout that also offers the opportunity to build strength and mobility. When researchers tested a group of people who suffered from knee osteoarthritis, aquatic exercise training done three times per week for six weeks was also shown to reduce knee pain.
Indeed, another study carried out by Chinese researchers found that aquatic exercises had the potential to increase range of motion and mobility. In terms of preventing knee pain, hopping in the pool to swim laps or do water aerobics a couple of times a week can be a great way to jump-start an exercise program before you commit to higher-impact activities.