iIn the annals of unsolicited advice, few nuggets have been dispensed as widely and with less supporting evidence than this: “If you keep doing all that running, you’re going to ruin your knees.”
The latest salvo in the debate over knees and running — a systematic review of 43 previous MRI studies that find no evidence that running causes either short-term or long-term damage to knee cartilage — is unlikely to convince the opinionated ex-football star at your Thanksgiving table who swears his bum knee was caused by wind sprints. But given that nearly half of Americans are expected to develop painful knee osteoarthritis at some point during their lives, the findings do raise a nagging question: If abstaining from running won’t magically protect your knees, what will?
Feed the cartilage.
Researchers have lately begun to rethink long-held dogmas about the properties of cartilage, the smooth layer of tissue that cushions the bones of the knee and other joints and whose breakdown is the primary cause of osteoarthritis. “Since cartilage doesn’t have a blood or nerve supply, we used to think it couldn’t adapt or repair itself,” said Michaela Khan, a doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia and the lead author of the new review on running and cartilage, which was published in the journal Sports Medicine.
But that’s not the case. Cyclic weight-bearing activities like walking and — wait for it — running squeeze the cartilage in the knee joint like a sponge, expelling waste and then drawing in a fresh supply of nutrient- and oxygen-rich fluid with each step. Instead of an inert shock-absorber doomed to get brittle and eventually fail with age, Ms. Khan said, cartilage is a living tissue that adapts and thrives with regular use. That explains why, for example, in a small study from 2010, non-runners who followed a 10-week running program saw a 1.9 percent improvement in a marker of cartilage strength and quality.
It also helps explain why swapping one form of exercise for another at the first sign of knee pain may be counterproductive. People with incipient knee problems often switch to low-impact activities like swimming and cycling because they believe it will protect their joints, said Jackie Whittaker, a physical therapist, and arthritis researcher also at the University of British Columbia, “but actually what they’re doing is starving the cartilage.”
Go short and frequent.
Still, there’s a limit to how quickly the joint can adapt to unfamiliar stresses. Jean-François Esculier, head of research for The Running Clinic and Ms. Kahn’s co-author, suggested that knee pain that persists for more than an hour after exercise, or that shows up the morning after a workout, is a sign that the joint was overloaded. That doesn’t mean you need to stop exercising, he said, but that you should adjust what you’re doing.
Consider shorter and more frequent workouts. According to Keith Baar, a physiologist at the University of California, Davis, who studies the molecular properties of cartilage and other connective tissues, the cells in cartilage respond positively to exercise for about 10 minutes. After that, you’re just accumulating more stress and damage in the tissue with no further adaptive benefits. So, if a weekly two-hour tennis marathon leaves you with aching knees, you might try swapping it out for one-hour sessions twice a week.
Beware the weekend warrior effect.
Of course, no workout takes place in a vacuum: What your knees can handle today depends on what you’ve been doing with them over the preceding weeks and months. That’s why the arrival of ski season is a source of predictable carnage for physical therapists, as enthusiastic weekend warriors hit the slopes after months of inactivity.
Dr. Whittaker suggested taking the first day on the slopes easy and being willing to cut subsequent days short when it feels like your leg muscles or joints have had enough. “It’s pacing,” she said. “It’s adapting to the capacity of your body to handle the load.”
Better yet, she strongly suggested doing some strength training to prepare your legs before putting any new stresses on them. A simple, generic program of squats and lunges can strengthen the muscles that keep the knee stable and stiffen the tendons and ligaments around the joint. For starters, aim for three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions, lifting a weight that leaves you with shaky muscles and the feeling that you could have done two or three more reps if necessary.
The New York Times
By Alex Hutchinson
There are three types of muscle contractions, so it can be confusing to know which kind to choose to get stronger. Your 3 options are: eccentric, where the muscle lengthens as it contracts, like the quadriceps muscles do as you go down the stairs, concentric, where the muscle shortens such as during a seated knee extension, and isometric, where the muscle fibers stay the same length during the contraction, like the quadricep muscles do during a wall sit.
Eccentric exercise is commonly prescribed by physiotherapists, especially when treating clients with tendon injuries. This type of strengthening has been shown to be more effective than concentric strengthening at minimizing muscle atrophy and improving muscle force production. While there has been some evidence to show that isometric exercises can be helpful in reducing pain, eccentric exercise in isolation or as an adjunct has been shown in the literature to be the most effective for reducing pain and improving function (Chen & Baker 2021). Eccentric and isometric movements are more common during your everyday movements – this is why it is important to train these movements after an injury.
The most important part of this rehabilitation process is to keep moving, but to avoid painful activities. We need to avoid complete unloading (or resting) of the tissues, as this can promote weakness and degeneration of the tendon. Your physiotherapist will work with you to figure out which exercises are best suited for your injury and get you back to what moves you.
A common misconception among folks with sore knees is that they should be able to locate and wear a knee brace that will immediately reduce their pain/discomfort. Of course, having no knee pain would be an ideal result from a brace, but not all knee braces are designed with pain relief at the forefront.
The primary functions of most of today’s knee braces are to provide support/stability to an unstable knee joint or to change the alignment of a particular less-than-ideally aligned component of the knee joint. Improved support and alignment can reduce the chance of future degenerative joint changes. AND – a potential bonus to wearing a knee brace is a reduction in pain.
Some knee braces are more likely than others to reduce knee pain. For example, a brace with a solid hinge designed and worn to support the medial knee joint (for a torn medial collateral ligament), may also end up reducing medial knee joint pain. Similarly, a brace that helps to change the position of an improperly tracking patella (knee cap) can also provide pain relief of the cartilage between the patella and the femur.
Most common types of knee braces:
Patellar tracking brace:
Usually, a sleeve created of neoprene or a similar stretchy fabric
Two common options:
A. one that changes the alignment of the patella by pulling it in a different direction (usually medially, for patellar femoral syndrome or patellar tendinitis)
B. one with a buttress/reinforcement to hold the patella in place (for a dislocating/subluxing patella)
- Provide support to the knee joint not provided by compromised ligaments
- Choices are off-the-shelf (OTS) or custom (more expensive but better fit ensured)
- Both OTS and custom can be constructed with a solid/hard shells or stays, increasing support by decreasing the potentially harmful movement that an unstable knee joint provides
- A less expensive OTS option is a soft shell (often neoprene) sleeve with metal hinges
- A wrap around style of OTS (versus a pull on sleeve) is often easier to get into position
- Typically, you get what you pay for!
- Often custom, but can be off-the-shelf
- The only ones worth considering have solid/hard shells to effectively change the alignment of the lateral or medial knee joint
- Designed to “unload” one side of the joint to decrease further degeneration (and potentially pain)
- Tight fitting sleeve to offer general compression but mild stability of the joint
- Can help diffuse swelling and increase confidence with mild support
- often has reduced compression over patella to avoid articular cartilage irritation
- The best ones offer medical grade (15-20 mmHg) compression and require a bit of effort to slip on
Since there are a variety of indications for a knee brace, health professionals need to have a solid understanding of the condition and symptoms of the individual requesting the brace. The more information identified, the better the chance of providing the safest and most effective knee brace possible.