One of the most pervasive misconceptions related to physical health is that our knees are going to “wear out” as we age. We’ve already discussed knee arthritis and how exercise is the best treatment option, already debunking the idea that the knee gets worn out just because of aging or activity. But that wouldn’t paint the full picture. The structures in and around the knee joint themselves do actually get “worn out” if there isn’t the right amount of force put through those tissues. So, what is actually happening in the knee joint, and what do these structures look like?
One of the major tissues in the knee joint are the menisci. The menisci perform a lot of important functions for the knee, including shock absorption. You can think of the menisci as cushions between the bones of the knee joint, and they do a fantastic job absorbing shock while still allowing the bones in the knee to move smoothly.
Meniscus injuries are pretty common in sports, but they can happen in many other settings and activities. When there is a meniscal injury, it usually involves shearing forces that ends up tearing the meniscus. The type and location of the tear can impact recovery and potential treatment options. For example, if the tear is on the outer portion of the meniscus where more blood flow occurs, that injury is more likely to heal on its own or be repaired with surgery. On the other hand, the inner portion of the meniscus receives less blood flow, meaning an injury will likely take longer to heal on its own and a surgical procedure would be more likely to involve removal of any damaged tissue as opposed to repair.
People who’ve experienced meniscal injuries tend to dislike certain movements, particularly twisting movements on a planted foot – think quickly changing directions while walking/running. Sudden changes in speed are also commonly irritating.
There’s reason to believe that if you’ve had a meniscal injury that you’re more likely to develop knee arthritis, but the same could be said for most traumatic injuries. While it’s true that the menisci commonly wear down as we age, it is important to remember that it is not usually due to “getting old”. Referring back to the article above, if exercise helps with knee arthritis, then activity is not inherently responsible for wearing down the knees. Joint breakdown has more to do with how physically prepared your body is for that task. If you’re strong and regularly performing a certain activity, the next time you do that activity isn’t likely to lead to issues. A runner who normally runs 5 miles isn’t likely to get injured the next time they run 5 miles, however someone who hasn’t walked a distance longer than 1 mile in years who tries running 5 miles isn’t likely to feel to great after, and is setting themself up for injury.
Back to the meniscus. If we look at how the menisci are often injured (sudden changes in speed/direction on a planted foot), then it makes sense that someone who rarely performs these movements is not likely to be prepared for those movements. So how do you get prepared? Get strong and do them! Here are some things you can try to help keep those knees strong and steady and prevent a meniscal injury.
- Backward lunge – Backward lunges are a knee friendly exercise that help build up the quadriceps and glutes. Once you’ve worked on these for a while, try working up to forward lunges, which are a little tougher but do a better job of preparing the knee for those dynamic movements that can lead to meniscus injuries. Try 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps. As you get more comfortable, you can hold on to some weights if you feel like you need the extra challenge.
- Single leg balance – Good balance is important is preventing lower extremity injuries, and most leg injuries occur on one leg. Use a wall or counter to help keep you steady, and work up to 1 minute. If that’s too easy, try doing these with your eyes closed.
- Squats – Commonly referred to as the “king of exercises” by trainers, the squat is a great way to develop strength, balance, and coordination. Make sure the knees stay over the ankles, and keep your core lightly braced. Try 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps. Like with lunges, you can use weights held in front of you for some extra challenge like in a goblet squat.
Meniscus injuries are fairly common, but as with the majority of knee injuries, they are preventable with regular exercise that emphasizes strength and balance. If you are concerned about your risk or think you have a meniscal injury, see your local physical therapist!
Got questions? Feel limited in what you’re able to do? The staff at Limitless Physical Therapy in Eugene, OR can show you how to discover your future without limits.
***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice. Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.