DEAR DOCTOR K: I have knee osteoarthritis. Are there exercises that could relieve my pain?
DEAR READER: As a fellow sufferer, I know that joint pain from osteoarthritis can really interfere with life. Since putting pressure on the joint can make it hurt more, you might think that exercises would only make the pain worse, and so you might be tempted to avoid exercising altogether. But limiting your movements can weaken muscles, worsening your joint trouble. In contrast, the right set of exercises can be a long-lasting way to tame your knee pain.
Like all joints, the knee is where two bones meet. Bones are stiff and hard, and the end of one bone would grind against the end of the other bone in a joint if it were not for cartilage. Cartilage is a tough but softer substance that covers the ends of bones. The cartilage at the ends of two bones in a joint serves as a cushion. Bone on bone is painful; cartilage on cartilage causes no pain.
Many joints are protected by the muscles that surround them, as muscles reduce the pressure on the joint. Regular exercise will strengthen key supportive muscles around your knee and restore flexibility. Over time, you will find that you can use your knee a lot more easily, and you won’t avoid doing certain things anymore.
A complete knee workout combines warm-ups, strength exercises and stretches. I’ll describe a few knee exercises. To perform them, you’ll need a mat and a sturdy chair. (I’ve put illustrations of these exercises on my website, AskDoctorK.com.)
— Mini-Squats (warm-up): Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Rest your hands on your thighs. Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees to lower your buttocks about six inches. Return to the starting position. Do one to three sets of 10 mini-squats.
— Supine knee extension (strength exercise): Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Rest your arms at your sides. Slowly lift your right foot off the floor and straighten your leg while keeping your right knee level with the left. Pause. Slowly lower your foot to the starting position. Do one to three sets of 10 extensions with each leg.
— Seated knee extension (strength exercise): Sit up straight on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands on your thighs. Slowly lift your right foot to the level of your hip. Pause. Slowly lower your foot flat on the floor. Do one to three sets of 10 lifts with each leg.
— Alternating hamstring stretch (stretching): Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grasp your right leg with both hands behind the thigh. Extend your leg to lift your right foot toward the ceiling. Hold. Return to starting position. Repeat with left leg. Repeat three to four times with each leg.
With the right exercises, you can ease your pain from the knee arthritis. And you actually will be able do more — even to exercise more.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.