Despite our best efforts, injuries, no matter how small, are pretty much unavoidable. If you’re active and enjoy playing sports, you’re more than likely to pick up one or two of them. One particular common injury is knee pain, which can come in many different forms and strains — from tendinitis, to ligament damage, to cartilage injuries.
To get an understanding of why knee injuries can occur, recognising what the knee goes through on a daily basis and what can help to support these movements, is a great first step to helping you to prevent them from happening.
What causes a knee injury?
Ligaments are fibrous connective tissue that connects your upper and lower leg bones together. So what is it that weakens the ligaments, or, more specifically, what kind of movements can cause injury? In all honesty, no sportsperson or someone regularly training is ‘safe’ from a knee injury. With causes ranging from a twisted knee, heavy impact, overextension, and very sudden stopping when running, the majority of movements that can lead to these injury precursors occur in most types of training or exercise.
Cartilage is the tissue that covers the end of both bones, comprising of two menisci on either side of the joint which, if damaged, can lead to a common knee injury: a meniscus tear. Should you be a keen golfer, football, or rugby player, you will particularly be at risk. Meniscal tears usually arise from a severe twisting of the knee whilst the foot remains in the same place — the movement of a tackle or a swift golf swing, for example.
If you’re carrying a little too much weight, this can have a detrimental effect on your joints, with everyday movements placing more pressure on ‘weaker’ areas such as the knees. Simple daily tasks such as walking or getting out of a chair can take their toll — increasing inflammation in the body and, more specifically, the joints.
How do I prevent knee injuries?
Following a healthy diet of clean whole foods and anti-inflammatory sources such as berries and green vegetables is a great place to start for injury prevention. By making healthy food choices, in a slight deficit, you will soon start to see results in weight loss, and reducing stress on your knee joints as a result. You may also find that the pain in your knees will decrease, allowing you to fully engage in the exercise you enjoy to further aid any weight loss efforts.
But what if weight loss isn’t the problem, or your knee is still in pain despite your body being healthier as whole? This is where safe exercise, rest, and supplementation come into play.
How can glucosamine help?
A key supplement that many cite as being essential for general joint health, and one that may prevent knee pain, is glucosamine. This supplement is a natural chemical compound found in the body, but is reasonably scarce. As a result, quality supplements can be used to increase the levels of this compound within the body — through powder or pill form.
Glucosamine supplements are often used in conjunction with chondroitin sulphate, as the glucosamine is thought to have some benefit to the renewal of cartilage in the knee, whereas the chondroitin sulphate can help the cartilage retain water. Most studies, however, show that glucosamine is not effective in actual knee pain relief. Yet, the benefit of its cartilage reparative properties may show that it can act as a good preventative supplement to knee injuries.
It’s recommended mainly for people who are suffering from osteoarthritis, and studies are showing that, over a period of time, it can have an effect in helping to reduce inflammation in the knee. It’s even been shown to help athletes with acute knee injuries. It is a very safe supplement to take with no real side effects, too. Initial thoughts were that it might increase insulin resistance, but this is a debunked theory.
When you are training frequently, inevitably your cartilage begins to wear at a more advanced rate, as well as joint degradation becoming an issue: especially if you are taking part in any impact sports such as long distance running, sprinting, or football. This is a natural effect of increased movement, impact, intensity, and mobility. In addition, as we age, our body’s natural production of glucosamine will start to drop. Therefore supplementing glucosamine with a low inflammatory diet may, in varying degrees, show some benefit towards joint and knee pain relief in later life.
Isn’t it best to just rest?
We must remember though that the knee is a very stable joint between two very mobile joints (hip & foot), meaning that if either of these joints lose mobility the knee will start to compensate for this. This can lead to overuse, which can lead to injury. Exercises such as planks, side planks, and bridges will help strengthen the hips — therefore taking the pressure of your knees.
Other knee pain which can be alleviated with gentle exercise is iliotibial band syndrome. The iliotibial band runs down the side of your thigh, and can become irritated or feel very tight if you activity level suddenly increases. A great way to prevent this is through SMR (self myofascial release): using a foam roller to release any excess tension after a heavy training session.
Knee pain is often associated with the muscles that surround it, and only really becomes a problem when these muscles are tight, damaged, or weak. To offset this, ensure that you stretch you legs and hips fully after every session. Evidence has shown that tight calves, in particular, can lead to knee pain, with many runners finding that their knees often take their strain of the additional work their calves is subjected to.
It must be highlighted however, that rest can be of the most benefit to your knees. If your injury is severely painful, consider taking at least one week off to give the knee time to heal and recover. It is also important to schedule rest days into your training regimen, as it is here where strength and progress is made in terms of your goals. Not allowing your body adequate rest will not only leave you feeling fatigued, but ultimately halt your progress and may lead to more permanent knee damage.
Ben Feinson is a fully qualified, self-employed personal trainer and freelance sports and nutrition writer. With years of experience in the industry, and undergoing a drastic fitness transformation himself, he has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field.