You may think twice about heading to the gym if you have knee pain, but in many cases, you shouldn't! Depending on the cause of your soreness, it may not only be acceptable to work out but beneficial in easing your symptoms. Follow these helpful tips to make exercising with a painful knee more doable.
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After you've gotten the all-clear from your doctor or physical therapist, exercising with knee pain should focus on simple strengthening exercise, low-impact cardio and gentle stretches to improve your mobility.
Use Caution Before Starting
Above anything else, the most important goal of working out with a painful knee is to avoid increasing your symptoms. It's definitely not a time for the "no pain, no gain" mentality, says Eileen Compty, doctor of physical therapy and licensed athletic trainer who has worked with the United States National Speed Skating Team.
Pushing through pain and doing exercises that aggravate your condition can not only slow your recovery, it can worsen the condition that caused the knee pain in the first place. If you're unable to exercise without pain, touch base with your physician. This is also true if you're experiencing worsening swelling, buckling or locking in your knee.
In some cases, other interventions like injections, bracing or surgery may be necessary to relieve your pain and to allow you to return to working out (or at least physical therapy). To add to this, if your knee pain is the result of a traumatic incident, like a fall or a car accident, it's always best to have it evaluated by a doctor before beginning an exercise routine.
Working Out With Arthritis
One of the most common causes of knee pain is osteoarthritis, or wear in tear in the cartilage that cushions the ends of the knee bones, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. While it can cause your legs to feel achey and stiff, it doesn't preclude you from exercising.
On the contrary, focusing on knee-strengthening exercises can help support the affected joint and protect it from further aggravation, according to the National Arthritis Foundation.
Focus on movements that target the leg muscles without straining the joint itself. For example, mini squats that involve shallow depths of about 30 to 45 degrees of knee flexion are a good way to activate your quadriceps muscles (front of the thigh). Same goes for supine leg raises — lying on your back and lifting one leg at a time up toward the ceiling.
The National Arthritis Foundation also suggests low-impact cardio exercises as a good way to get your heart rate up without straining your joints. These include using an elliptical, going for a bike ride or swimming at your local pool. Not only do these boost your heart health, but they can help you shed excess weight that can further aggravate your arthritis.
Exercising With a Meniscal Tear
Another common cause of knee pain is degeneration or tearing in your meniscus, according to the National Institutes of Health. This piece of cartilage, which sits in between the tibia (shin bone) and femur (thigh bone) in your knee, helps absorb the loads placed on the joint and distribute the force across it. While some acute tears require surgery, many occur as a result of wear and tear over time and respond well to exercise.
In this situation, focus on pain-free quadriceps-strengthening exercises, similar to those you would perform with osteoarthritis, according to the University of Washington. In addition, it's important to avoid exercises that involve lateral movement, pivoting or deeper squatting, as these tend to aggravate the condition.
Instead, try gentle strength exercises like the leg press or shallow wall squats, only bending your knees as far as you can without pain. If these are too intense, something as simple as a quad set (squeezing your thigh muscle and holding for a few seconds) can be effective.
Staying Active Through Spasms and Strains
Spasms or strains in the muscles that cross your knee (like the hamstring or quadriceps) can lead to reduced range of motion and pain in and around your joint. If you have this type of pain, do some gentle stretches that target these muscles to help restore your mobility and decrease soreness, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
Move 1: Hamstring Stretch
- Sit up tall with the affected leg extended straight in front of you.
- Without rounding your lower back, hinge forward at your hips until you feel a mild pull behind your knee (don't lock out your knee).
- Hold this position for 30 seconds before relaxing.
Move 2: Quad Stretch
- Stand near a counter or other sturdy surface that you can use for support and balance.
- Slowly kick the foot of the leg that needs to be stretched backward as you bring your heel toward your butt.
- Grab the ankle of that leg with your other hand as you gently bend it further until a mild stretch is felt near the bottom of your thigh. Do not push into pain!
- Maintain the pull for 30 seconds and try to complete each of the stretches above several times throughout the day.
If you have limited flexibility, incorporate a strap or towel to help you hold onto your foot or ankle in either of these stretches.
Read more: Avoid Runner's Knee With These 5 Exercises
Working Through a Sprain
Following a fall or sports injury, you may be experiencing knee pain caused by a ligament sprain. Damage to these structures, which provide support to your joint, can lead to knee buckling or giving way.
After the initial swelling from the injury has subsided and you're able to walk around without significant pain, focus on restoring the strength in your knee muscles to provide support to the joint, New York University recommends. Depending on the specific injury, exercises like squats, step-ups, lunges and hamstring curls can be a good way to build up your stability.
In addition, low-impact cardio exercises like a stationary bike or an elliptical are a good way to restore your range of motion and help ease lingering swelling. However, because each type of sprain is unique, it's a good idea to check with your doctor to establish any restricted activities.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.