Causes of Knee Pain When Hiking Downhill

Young couple with backpacks sitting on rock
Two hikers taking a rest on a vista. (Image: amana productions inc/amana images/Getty Images)

Hiking is a recreational activity that offers significant benefits for the human body. However, the constant pounding endured by the knees during lengthy hikes can wear out the joints and cause inflammation, especially when hiking downhill. Moreover, persistent hiking in the presence of knee pain may lead to serious injury.

Significance

Hiking downhill has shown to increase the risk of musculoskeletal pain and injury, especially in the knees. While hiking uphill, foot placement is fairly static and weight-bearing impact is minimal. Hiking downhill, by contrast, exacerbates weight-bearing impact due to the force of gravity. As such, the knee joint absorbs extra shock, leading to pain and inflammation.

The Facts

In a study conducted by M. Kuster et.al., which sought to calculate the forces endured by the knees during downhill walking, it was found that compressive forces were three to four times greater -- particularly at the femoropatellar joint -- when compared to level walking. Therefore, proponents of the study consider downhill walking a strenuous task for the knees, according to Pubmed.gov.

Solution

According to “The Hiking Engine," there are ways to prevent knee pain brought on by hiking downhill. Condition your leg muscles by performing weight exercises that work out your hamstrings, quadriceps and calves -- strengthening these muscles may help reduce the stress endured by your knees while hiking. For additional support when hiking, wear knee braces. Furthermore, utilize hiking poles as they are particularly beneficial for redistributing load-bearing weight to the arms and shoulders, thus alleviating the shock exerted on the knees. In fact, hiking sticks may reduce compressive forces by 25 percent, according to a study in the "Journal of Sports Sciences."

Tips

In addition to strengthening your leg muscles and making use of braces and hiking poles, it’s also beneficial to avoid descending too quickly -- rapid descents intensify compressive forces. Do not attempt to leap as landing too hard on your heels transfers immense shock to your knees. Wear quality hiking boots with shock absorbing soles and ankle support.

Considerations

Although preventive measures may be taken to alleviate the effects of hiking downhill, conditions such as tendonitis and injuries entailing damage to the bones and cartilage may be aggravated by hiking. Therefore, if you are experiencing persistent pain in your knees, avoid hiking and consult a health care professional immediately.

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