Oh, My Aching Knees! How to Minimize the Pain of Arthritic Knees
With six knee surgeries under my belt, let's just say I know a thing or two about aching knees! Although I'm only in my mid 40s, I've been suffering from knee osteoarthritis for over a decade now.
I used to be a competitive tennis player, but my career was cut short by a knee injury on the court. You see, I tore most of the lateral meniscus in my left knee, which created a ripe setup for my future battle with knee osteoarthritis. Once you lose that critical cartilage, which acts as padding for the joint, you're asking for trouble. Just as I'd entered my third decade, I made a seemingly innocuous movement—just a kneel to the floor—when I felt that unmistakable "SNAP" of a meniscus tear.
A few weeks later I was in for my second surgery, a procedure I was certain was only going to be a routine arthroscopy with a meniscectomy (removal of the torn meniscus). Much to my horror, I awoke to discover my surgeon had found what's called a Grade IV chondral injury in my knee.
Bottom line, I'd lost what's called articular cartilage (a thin, membranous padding that covers the bones), and my femur and tibia were bone-on-bone. Here began my struggle with severe osteoarthritis and its accompanying life-altering effects.
Managing the Pain of Knee Osteoarthritis During a Flair-Up
Ever heard the acromyn R.I.C.E? It stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. When you're in a lot of pain, if you've overdone it, or notice increased swelling in your knee, remember this sage advice.
Ice That Knee!
A lot of the pain you experience is caused by swelling- that is, the fluid that accumulates as a protective mechanism when your body senses an injury. When you see signs of swelling, head straight for the ice! My own personal favorite icing method is something I received in the hospital after one of my surgeries: it's called a cryo cuff with a cooler. You can also get a more portable version of the cryo cuff that doesn't involve connecting a hose to the cooler. Either way, the icing effect is just phenomenal. You next best bet is a gel ice pack- they now make ones you can Velcro onto your knee for mobility, too.
Bottom line, ICE! And ice a lot... every 2 hours for 30 minutes will go a long way.
Gently Exercise Your Knee
Always make sure to talk to your doctor, orthopedic surgeon, or physical therapist before starting any knee exercise or rehabilitation program.
Ride a bike- If you have access to a stationary bike, you should take advantage of it. Gentle exercise will increase mobility and function. The key is not to overdo it.
Go swimming- Swimming is very kind to the joints. It's an excellent low impact way to get your knee moving while simultaneously building muscle. Perhaps contrary to logic, you DO need some weight bearing exercises to help your arthritic knee. Weight bearing workouts assist in bone-building by growing denser, stronger bones. Some people cannot tolerate walking, so how about pool walking? Get a flotation belt and go walking in the pool at a depth that's comfortable for you.
Use weights to build muscles- Again, this may seem counterintuitive, but studies have shown that strengthening the muscles around the arthritic joint can reduce the load the joints must bear, thereby reducing pain and/or swelling.
Take a Tai Chi or Yoga Class- I recently discovered there are classes available that are geared towards people with arthritis. These gentle movements will assist with flexibility, strength and balance. An added bonus is the focus these classes place on balance. People with osteoarthritis are at an increased risk of falls due to joint instability.
Take a gentle walk- If it hurts too much, don't do it. Opt for water walking instead. Make sure you have some very good walking shoes, too. I've found walking on hard pavement to be too much for my knee to handle, so I make my way up to the track at our children's school. It's made of a synthetic rubber called tartan which is easier on the joints.
Tricks to Prevent Osteoarthritis Knee Pain
When it comes to knee arthritis pain, your best defense if often a good offense. You know, the old Benjamin Franklin adage: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I wish there were some panacea I could offer... a magic pill or a cure would be nice. But, the truth is, knee arthritis hurts. It can become so severe it's debilitating and can evolve into a verifiable quality of life issue for its sufferers.
Fortunately, there are some preventative measures you can take to decrease your chances of exacerbating your knee pain. Once it sets in, it can be very difficult to overcome, especially when there's significant swelling involved. The following are some of the tools and tricks I've learned from physical therapists and my surgeon to keep the pain at bay.
Keep your weight in check- The less weight you carry around, the less weight your joints will need to bear.
Make your home user-friendly for housework- If you have stairs in your home, they may be your nemesis. Having cleaning supplies both upstairs and downstairs can spare you a lot of unnecessary stair-climbing. Get a light vacuum cleaner. Carrying around heavy cleaning tools is hard on the knees. If you absolutely must kneel, make sure you get knee pads.
Get a slip-proof cushioned pad for the kitchen- Cooking and doing dishes on a hard floor requires standing for long periods of time. Having some cushion to stand on is not only better for your knees, but also your back.
Remain knee-friendly when being environmentally-friendly- One of the most painful activities for many people with knee problems is gardening and/or working in the yard. Make sure you have a wheelbarrow to transport your tools, plants, rocks, soil, etc. Make sure you use knee pads, too.
Take frequent breaks during the day- Don't ignore the pain, your body will tell you when it's time for a break. By golly, listen to your body and take a breather!
Elicit help from family members or friends- One of the hardest tasks for me is carrying large loads of laundry up and down the stairs. I need the railing to get up and down. I risk losing my balance and falling, so laundry transport has become my husband's job.
Make sure you have a no-skid mat in your tub or shower- Balance issues are serious with knee arthritis. I had a couple of occasions when I almost fell in the shower and ended up tweaking my knee. Granted, it could have been worse... much worse. So, I promptly went out and purchased a no-skid mat.
A Surprising Fact About Shoes!
The last time I showed up at my surgeon's office I was wearing a pair of flip flops. My knee and entire calf was so swollen I was unable to put on my regular walking shoes. I made an off-the-cuff remark to him about how I don't normally wear flip flops, I'm very careful to wear high quality walking shoes. He told me there's evidence that flat, flexible shoes are actually less hard on the knees than other shoes. Better yet, he told me if I could get away with walking around barefoot, then I should go for it. What?
A 2010 study by Dr. Najia Shakoor at Rush University Medical Center found flexible shoes to be easiest on the knee. Bottom line, invest in a pair of flexible, flat athletic shoes or flip flops and forego the nurse clogs. If you have trouble walking in flip flops, by all means stay away from them. Any shoe that increases your risk of a fall is a bad shoe. One of the shoes the study looked at specifically were the Puma H-Street shoes, a flat athletic shoe with highly flexible soles.
Here's to pain-free knees!