The knee is the strongest of the 187 joints in the human body, absorbing a force equivalent to 4 ;1/2 times your body weight just when you walk down the stairs. Yet despite its power, the knee is also the joint that typically causes the most suffering.
As Americans have become more active, sports-related knee injuries have become more common. But you don't have to be an athlete to experience knee pain. Automobile accidents commonly involve knee injuries. So do falls. Some knee pain stems from overuse or age-related wear and tear on the joint. The most common cause of knee pain is osteoarthritis, a degenerative wearing down of the cartilage cushions in the joint, causing bones to scrape painfully against each other.
In large measure because of osteoarthritis, which is much more common in people over age 45, knee pain tends to be a particular problem for older Americans. One study reported that 18 percent of men and 24 percent of women over 60 experienced knee pain on most days. The oldest Americans had the highest rates of knee pain, with 24 percent of men and 30 percent of women ages 85 to 90 having pain in their knees.
Part of the problem is design, or rather the inability of knee design to change whenever human beings place new demands on it. "The knee, without question, is ill-suited for the jobs we ask it to do," says James M. Fox, M.D. It wasn't designed for football, soccer, automobile accidents, carpentering, plumbing, or squatting and kneeling all day long.
If your knees ache because of overuse or abuse, here are a few things you can do to make amends.
Abrupt twisting motions (like in basketball or skiing) or an impact to the side of the knee (perhaps from a car accident or football tackle) may cause an injury to the cruciate ligament or the medial or lateral collateral ligaments of the knee. These injuries may or may not involve pain when they occur, but you may hear a buckle sound or "pop." Tendinitis and ruptured tendons may occur with overuse, or when you attempt to break a fall.
These injuries may be followed by swelling, tenderness, radiating pain, and perhaps some discoloration and loss of motion.
They should be iced, and they require medical care as soon as possible.
Marjorie Albohm is a certified athletic trainer and is the president-elect of the National Athletic Trainers' Association. She served on the medical staffs for the 1980 Winter and 1996 Summer Olympics and the 1987 Pan American Games.
Lisa Dobloug is a fitness and spa consultant in Washington, D.C. She is president of SAGA Fitness. Many of her clients are older people who wish to remain active and who appreciate her sound advice about warming up, stretching, and cooling down.
James M. Fox, M.D., specializes in orthopedic surgery and arthroscopic surgery of the knee. He is the co-author of Save Your Knees, Again and former medical director of Synergy Performance Health and Fitness Centers, based in Burbank, California.
Gary M. Gordon, D.P.M., has a sports medicine practice in Glenside, Pennsylvania, where he specializes in podiatric medicine and foot surgery.
Rich Phaigh has taught more than 250 classes in advanced therapeutic technique in the United States and abroad. Phaigh has worked on the likes of running stars Alberto Salazar and Joan Samuelson.