Your knees do so much work for you. What can you do to take care of them?
Ongoing, chronic knee pain is a common complaint, and made more common by numerous causes. Whether you have stiff and slightly swollen knees from osteoarthritis, referred pain from tight muscles in the hip and thigh, or an old injury like a meniscus or ligament tear that still bothers you, there are a few easy things you can do to help yourself out and better manage your knee pain.
If you’ve had a recent injury or flare up of knee pain, put some ice on it!
Ice is great for managing pain and promoting the healing process in almost every situation, from a referred pain point that’s just occurred to a decades old knee sprain that lets you know when it’s going to rain. Ice has an excellent pain-numbing effect, so it’s a great option for pain management when you don’t want to take painkillers, and is also useful in managing how the body responds to pain and injury, minimizing the effects of swelling and speeding the healing processes.
While there are no set-in-stone rules for the use of ice, guidelines suggest use for at least 10-20 minutes, though these numbers can vary based on the type of ice treatment you’re using, such as ice bath, ice massage, or ice pack. If you’re applying ice to help manage an injury to deeper tissues – like if you have a diagnosed ACL tear, which is deep, and you’re working to manage the swelling throughout the joint – you may need to leave the ice on for a longer period. The same applied to icing a body part that has greater levels body fat. In either case, more time is needed for deeper tissues to decrease in temperature.
Feeling stiff, tense, and spasmy? Throw a heat pack on that!
Heat is a great option for knee pain that’s stemming from stiffness or muscle spasm. Like ice, heat treatments can have a painkilling effect, and will also improve circulation to an area, increasing oxygen and nutrients and helping eliminate cellular waste products and speeding the healing process. It’s also an excellent way to relieve muscle spasm, which can indirectly decrease knee pain by decreasing tension in supporting muscles.
Like ice, heat applications need 10-20 minutes to be effective, and may need even longer to be effective when target tissues are deeper under muscle or fat layers. Also like ice, heat can be applied directly to the knees, or to the muscles surrounding them. And it’s common sense, but bears repeating: Always use heat or ice with a towel between the heat or cold and your skin.
And get moving!
While somewhat counterintuitive, movement can work quite well to decrease knee pain. Your knees (and the other major joints in your body) keep themselves “well oiled” with a particular body fluid called synovial fluid that found within many major and minor joints. This fluid is the “oil” that keeps the joint moving well, and movement stimulates the body to create more of this fluid. This is still the case even when movement is painful. Work around this by keeping movement to a non-painful range. Maintaining the movement you have is an important step in moving towards being pain-free.
Movement (especially the right kind of movement) also builds strength through the muscles surrounding and supporting the knees. This is where a physiotherapist, physical therapist, or exercise physiologist comes in: These professionals can help identify the pieces of your movement patterns that might be creating joint stress leading to your knee pain. They can provide you with the right exercises to reset those patterns and get you feeling better. The ultimate goal: Move well, get strong, and get on with enjoying your life!