Chronic knee pain can make people who walk a lot think they should stop – they shouldn’t.
The recommendation to "do more" of something when that activity seems to be painful can appear counterintuitive. After all, the advice for many a musculoskeletal injury is to refrain from the offending activity until the pain resolves and the underlying cause is addressed and treated. However, research has shown that exercising achy knees is actually beneficial for preventing debilitation and stiffness. Yes, exercising achy knees can make you feel better.
First, it is essential to know why your knees hurt in the first place. There are plenty of instances in which movement of an injured knee can result in more damage to the knee and its surrounding structures – so it's crucial to know what's going on. If you are experiencing knee pain that is chronic, meaning it has lasted for three months or longer, it is imperative to have it evaluated and diagnosed, preferably by an orthopedic specialist.
Osteoarthritis is a medical condition of the knee characterized by a breakdown in the cartilage and underlying bone of the knee. Knee osteoarthritis is most common in the middle to later years of life and often causes pain and stiffness in the joints. In many cases, osteoarthritis is the achy knee culprit. A cornucopia of research now indicates that those who battle stiff and achy knees due to osteoarthritis may benefit the most from continuing to walk, even when their knees are achy.
So how does walking help achy knees? Well, specifically in the case of knee osteoarthritis, the activity of walking can help rebuild the damaged knee joint. The knee's cartilage is the protective cushioning that helps absorb the shock of body movements. Movement of the knee provides nutrients to that cartilage and helps it stay healthy. In addition, walking strengthens all the muscles in the legs and not only the knees. Building up the muscles of the quadriceps, calves, and hip flexors helps relieve the burden on the knees and are all involved in healthy knee mechanics. It’s also important to keep in mind, that the experience of knee pain while walking can be a gait imbalance indicator. Sometimes, it isn't osteoarthritis causing achy knees. A visit to a physical therapist can help.
Walking on achy knees is something a person should build up to gradually, not all at once, especially if you have been sedentary for a while. To start, and once you have clearance and approval from your doctor, begin with 10-minute walking intervals on a flat, even surface while wearing supportive walking shoes. If you can't do too much at first, that's okay! If a 30-minute walking routine is your goal, you don’t have to do it all at once. Breaking a walking program up into smaller chunks multiple times per day is a wonderful way to start. Also, consider supplementing a walking program with yoga – which can still help exercise and challenge the knee muscles, but without direct force or pressure. Additionally, consider cross-training with a stationary or regular bicycle, swimming, and resistance training three times per week. Finally, do make sure to stretch after a particularly long walk. Stretching helps to elongate the muscles and can aid in pain prevention down the road.
When walking through knee pain, listening to what your body is telling you is imperative. While it can be an essential therapy tool for achy knees, don't ever ignore severe pain warning signs. If the knee pain is accompanied by redness, swelling, fever, or instability, stop. These signs warrant a visit to the doctor as soon as possible.
Though pain is always the body's indicator that something is going on which needs to be addressed – your body was designed to move. Human mechanics have made us the strong, fast, agile creatures we are. Even when achy, our knees don't deserve to sit on the bench. With the proper training and protection, many people with achy knees can lead active and healthy lives well into their golden years.