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Staying active with knee pain

We understand that it can sometimes be difficult to exercise with knee pain. However, avoiding exercise due to knee pain can lead to muscle weakness and stiff joints which can aggravate your knee pain. We explore how you can making exercising more comfortable with knee pain through specific workouts, including resistance training (using resistance bands or weights to complete upper and lower body exercises). This section of our knee pain hub also investigates how you can prevent knee pain while running or cycling. 

Continuing to stay mobile with knee pain can be quite difficult. We explain a few techniques you can use to reduce pain and stay active.

Ignoring the pain won't make it go away. Nor will avoiding all motions that spark discomfort. In fact, limiting your movements can weaken muscles, compounding joint trouble, and affect your posture, setting off a cascade of further problems.

And while pain relievers and cold or hot packs may offer quick relief, fixes like these are merely temporary.

The right set of exercises can be a long-lasting way to manage knee pain. If practised regularly, joint pain relief workouts might help to postpone, or even avoid surgery on a problem joint that has been worsening for years, by strengthening key supportive muscles and restoring flexibility.

In an otherwise healthy knee, it has not been demonstrated that individuals who are more active across their lifetime develop earlier degenerative osteoarthritis. 

Degenerative knee osteoarthritis occurs as individuals age and may occur earlier as a result of genetic predisposition or trauma to the knee. Your general health also plays a role in keeping joints flexible and strong, so general advice is to get regular exercise, keep a healthy diet and stop smoking if applicable.

It is recommended that even for individuals who have an existing knee condition, they should keep as active as possible with their knees, except for in specific circumstances. If the knee is very unstable, frequently giving way underneath you, then it is advisable to limit the knee to performing more stable activities to guard against further knee cartilage injuries.

For individuals with symptomatic cartilage tears or osteoarthritis, they should try to limit or modify any activities which are causing any significant flares of pain or swelling following these activities.

Walking on softer ground or cycling for transport is a good option for many individuals looking to remain active while managing any swelling or pain.

The knee meniscus is situated on the outer aspect of the lower knee joint surface, on top of the tibia. As the upper joint surface contacts and impacts the joint, the meniscus acts as a spring by spreading slightly and dampening the forces on the knee joint. Once a meniscus has been torn, this eliminates this spring effect.

Unfortunately, osteoarthritis of the knee also gives rise to increased weight-bearing forces due to increase joint stiffness and the gradual reduction in the specialised, bony joint surfaces known as hyaline cartilage.

Knee meniscal tears and osteoarthritis of the knee are conditions often characterised by intermittent bouts of inflammation and swelling.

It is recommended that individuals pace their activity and don’t do too much on days when their knee is pain free, but also continue to perform a moderate amount of activity on other days. This should prevent the knee from flaring as much and also prevent the knee from becoming too stiff.

The best form of exercise depends on the exact nature of the problem, but there are a few rules which hold true in most circumstances.

Patellofemoral (kneecap) specific knee pain tends to be aggravated with repetitive flexion movements, the worst of which is jogging. Cycling may help patellofemoral problems, as this helps to strengthen the gluteal muscles.

General recommendations for gym work is to find two to three cardiovascular machines that do not aggravate the symptoms and use these on a rotational basis or interval between them each session. Resistance work is highly recommended as it keeps the supporting quadriceps muscles strong and protects against knee joint instability which can result with persistent knee pain. 

Unstable knees caused by large cartilage tears and possibly ligament disruption often require a specific gym resistance programme. This may ultimately require surgery if you've been unable to return to sports involving impact and rotational movements with appropriate rehabilitation.

Fitness regimes are most successful when they are altered every few weeks. Fortunately, changing the types of movements, intensity and number of sets and repetitions may also help offset knee pain while keeping fit.

Always make sure to warm up properly before doing any physical activity that may worsen your knee pain. Doing this will help you get more out of your workout, prepare you to stretch, and lower your risk of further injury.

Certain types of activities, such as running and cycling can aggravate knee pain, however there are knee strengthening exercises for runners, runners knee stretches and stretches for cycling knee pain that can help. You could also try using a runners knee brace or compression knee sleeves to support your knee while running or walking.

You may wish to chat to your Physiotherapist or GP about how to reduce knee pain while walking, or get advice on runners knee exercises if you suffer from this condition.

Exercise should never cause pain or make your current knee pain worse. Muscle soreness after a hard workout is normal, but sharp, shooting, or sudden pain in the muscles or knee joints means you should stop and check with your doctor.

Gentle is good. Notice what feels right for you, and always consult your GP or physiotherapist if you are experiencing pain, or if the pain in your knee gets worse.

Knee pain is frustrating to live with, limiting your ability to do the things you love and preventing you from taking part in the sports or activities you enjoy.

We can help get you out of pain and back to doing the things you want. It’s easy to book a consultation online with one of our experienced knee doctors.

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