The Baz Lurhmann song “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” is full of wisdom and no line is wiser than:
“Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.”
And if you’re lucky enough not to have had a knee injury until now, start being kind to them today because – as the many who have suffered a knee injury will tell you – “you’ll miss them when they’re gone”.
Every part of the body has a role to play but the knees are exceptionally important. The knee is the largest joint in the body, and fairly complex in structure. It is a hinge joint so it is only designed to bend in one plane from extended, wherein the leg is long, to bent where the heel hits the butt.
In addition, we can rotate and hinge from the hip to change the position of the knee in relation to the body as well as the direction of travel. This allows us to access different parts of the body. But as far as the knee is concerned it only extends and bends. That is all.
Our knees take our body weight when we walk, run, hop, jump, ascend stairs, descend stairs, sit down, stand up and perform all kinds of exercises. Certain exercises can increase the risk of a knee injury because they create imbalance, while failing to exercise at all can also expose them to a greater likelihood of injury because of weakness.
So whatever your sport – even if it’s sedentary, you need to keep these crucial joints stable and the muscles that move them strong.
Types of knee injury
Knee injury associated with sport varies but the most common types affect the tissues and ligaments that support and connect with the patella (knee cap).
For example regular running can tighten the IT band that runs from the hip to the kneecap on the outside edge of the thigh. Eventually this can misalign the kneecap, causing rubbing, swelling, discomfort and pain.
Footballers often suffer irritation and wear to the cartilage behind the kneecap as the repeated pounding of the foot on the pitch while running shortens the hamstrings and causes friction.
Rugby players might suffer ligament tears if the knee is twisted during a game. The anterior and medial cruciate ligaments connect the knee to the thigh and if either goes the stability of the knee is compromised.
And in all kinds of sports and activities simply over-exercising weak knees can result in a painful sprain.
Know your knees
Prevention is better than cure and the key thing to remember while exercising the knee is to ensure it’s performing the functions for which it is designed… flexion and extension.
The only other important thing to watch for is that it the knees are well aligned.
When a baby is born the legs at the hips are rotated inwards and up to the age of seven they rotate outwards. For some individuals that means the toes and kneecaps are naturally slightly inward facing, for others they’re forward facing and in fewer cases but still some they’re outward facing.
You can rotate your leg beyond its natural position inward or outward from the hip, but when you do the knee should always be facing the same way as your second and third toes. This is a golden rule when you exercise the knee and if when you bend the knees as you walk, squat or lunge the alignment is compromised there is an imbalance you need to address.
If you notice alignment issues in your knees, are experiencing pain in the joints or have any concerns consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Some crucial exercises that are kind to knees
Set your heels beneath your hips with your knees and toes facing forward. Bend at the knees, keeping them over the ankles as you do so and the heels connected with the floor throughout, then lengthen the legs.
Set your heels wide with your legs rotated so your toes and knees turn out about 45degrees. Slowly bend the knees keeping the heels on the floor and the knees aligned with the second and third toes. If your knees start to roll in don’t go so deep. Extend the legs and repeat.
Place one foot on a bench and the other on the floor behind it. Rest the whole of the bench foot on the platform, but rest on the toe tips of the foot behind you on the floor. Slowly bend the front knee, keeping it above the ankle as you do so, as low as you comfortably can. Then extend the leg to the start position. Repeat on the other side.
Wearing ankle weights, sit on a mat with the knees bent and the feet on the floor. Slowly lengthen one leg, without letting the knee fall from its original height, then bend it back to the floor. Repeat on the other side.
The Benefits of Straps and Supports
There are numerous products on the market designed to support knees for injury prevention and rehabilitation.
Knee wraps are made of the same elastic material as wrist wraps and are popular amongst body builders. You wrap them under the knee or all around the joint typically in a spiral pattern. In addition to storing tension which aids the upward phase of the squat, knee wraps reduce stress on the quadricep tendon and protect the knee which is great for injury prevention with heavy weights.
Knee sleeves are compressive tubes of neoprene that you slide over the joint. Knee sleeves are favoured by sports people with historic knee injuries because they provide compression which increases blood flow while keeping pain and swelling down. They also help keep the patella and all associated ligaments in place counterbalancing imbalances in the knee joint.
Knee braces and knee supports come in variety of designs and as the name suggests they support the joint to help keep good alignment and are favoured by runners suffering ‘runner’s knee’. So this is the category of knee accessory best-suited to cardiovascular pursuits.
Knee pads provide cushioning and protection for the joint on impact with external surfaces. Some have features found in braces and supports so perform a dual function.
If you do have a niggly knee though we would advise getting medical advice to help you determine which exercises and accessories will help you heal.