If you stand, sit walk, or run, then chances are, your knees are working hard for you. Knees, they selflessly support you from the moment your feet stumble out from a warm cushy bed. They funnel the weight from your hip down to your ankle. Running, jumping, walking, and stair climbing all possibly contribute to pain. In this article, we will discuss the basic anatomy of the knee and ways to keep them healthy, supported, and pain free!
What’s In A Knee?
The knee is a complex joint where the femur (thigh bone) meets the tibia & fibula (lower leg bones), and is capped off with a patella (knee cap). It is the most complicated joint of the body and supports almost all of a person’s bodyweight! Due to the number of bones, ligaments and tendons involved, there are a great number of reasons why knee pain may occur due to misalignment, overuse and degeneration. Some injuries include tendinitus, ligament tears, arthritis, or another common complaint, iliotibial band syndrome. (The IT band is a ligament extending from the pelvis to the lower leg that tightens as we walk or run).
Along with the aforementioned bone structure of a knee, there are tendons, ligaments, muscles, cartilage and bursae (fluid-filled sac). These units work in conjunction in order to stabilize, flex, extend, and even slightly rotate the knee. There are four pertinent muscle groups to become aware of. The quadriceps (thigh muscles), allow for extension of the knee (kicking a soccer ball). The hamstrings, adductors (inner thigh), and calf muscles are responsible for knee flexion and external rotation (jumping rope and the Charlie Chaplin stroll). Lastly the iliotibial tract (popularly referred to as the IT band, resides on the “Nike/Puma” stripe down the side of your pants) stabilizes the knee.
Cartilage and bursae are present to absorb shock and create fluidity in the joint. They allow for the bones to move smoothly across one another.
All pain must first be addressed on an individual basis. Every person has different genetics, diet, injury, and lifestyle, so any pain must take into account all of the factors at play.
Why Causes Knee Pain?
As an ex gymnast who tumbled for 8 years, then proceeded to run the concrete streets of Los Angeles, I developed tight IT bands which lead to knee pain. As a yoga teacher I have found an overabundant number of students with tightness in both IT bands and hamstrings. This is true of athletes as much as couch potatoes The IT band tightens in order to lift and support the knee. However, because we have become a society of chronic sitters (at a desk or in a car), this IT band increasingly contracts and tightens resulting in lack of mobility in the hip and the knee joint. Our bodies are meant to move. When we sit for long periods of time, the muscles essentially dry out like shrink-wrap, tightening and limiting mobility. For athletes, the habitual physical motion of running or stair climbing creates strength as well as tightness in the muscles, leading once again to lack of mobility.
Overuse of the knee can create a variety of problems. Ligaments may tear and muscles often strain especially from twisting motions. Irritation and inflammation develop resulting in tendonitis. Bursitis is caused by inflammation of the fluid filled sacs (bursae) surrounding the knee and can also be caused by trauma, gout, or arthritis.
Obesity contributes to knee pain by funneling the excess weight of the body through it’s small joint. The patella houses the thickest layer of cartilage in the body, protecting it from the pressure of the quadriceps when the knee is flexed, as in stair climbing. Stair climbing can put as much as six hundred pounds of pressure on the patella, not to mention the added weight created by obesity.
Misalignment of the hips directly affects knee stability and must be equally addressed when healing knee pain.
Life Without Knee Pain
There is hope, and it starts with self-care! I have a deep love for movement and every week you can find me practicing yoga, dancing, performing aerial arts, and running. As I age, I have been able to find ways to support my continued love for the physical, knee-pain free. Here are a few recommendations.
1. Yoga/Yoga Tune Up
Stretching the muscles that surround and support the knee is vital for knee health. Yoga is one of the best ways I know how to keep pain away. Hip limitation directly affects knee pain, and the more available your hips are, the greater amount of mobility you will have in your knee. The Yoga Tune Up Post Athletic Stretch dvd is a wonderful aid to keep the hips, back and knees supple. Learn proper alignment to save your knees before pain arises.
2. Massage/Foam Roller
Massage can alleviate tight muscles, especially the thigh and IT band, allowing for freedom in the knee. Foam rollers can be purchased for under $30 and massage your self by rolling away the tightness!
3. Yoga Tune Up Balls!
My ALL TIME favorite self-care tool are the Tune Up balls. Their size allows for greater manipulation of the muscles, tissue, tendons, and ligaments relieving said pain.
Within 48 hours of an injury, ice can decrease swelling and pain
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