By Rick Halle-Podell, Licensed Massage Therapist, Founder of Massage Therapy of Oak Park
Those wonderful leg muscles that form your kneecap are perhaps the least understood muscles in the human body. Their uniqueness is the reason they are so prone to injury, overuse and, ultimately, knee pain.
While we often associate knee injuries with football and basketball players, recent studies indicate that knee pain is epidemic because of a sedentary lifestyle that allows our knees to become weak and unstable. When knees reach that condition, sudden movements such as stepping off a curb or rising suddenly from a crouched position can easily overload the knee and cause acute pain and permanent damage.
The Body’s Largest Joint
The knee, the body’s largest joint, consists of four muscles called the quadriceps (i.e., quads), plus the patella (i.e., kneecap). Every walking motion you make, from casual strolling to explosive sports movements, involves this unique joint and its supporting muscles. Lateral, vertical or linear movements of the knee allow rapid changes in direction such as stopping and rapid restarting, jumping and very intricate dance steps.
Use It or Lose It
Past the age of 30, muscle strength begins to decline without regular exercise. Exercise prevents torn ligaments and damage to cartilage in the knee. Doctors know that once a ligament is stretched, it will not return to its prior tightness or stability. The result may be an unstable knee joint, causing a lack of confidence in your ability to make the rapid movements you once took for granted. Stretched or torn ligaments need increased support, which they get from the muscles surrounding the knee.
To provide the necessary support, however, those muscles need to be strengthened. Having lost confidence in the knee joint, one tends to unconsciously protect it by using other leg muscles. The resulting changes in body mechanics further weaken the injured knee joint and muscles. Changes in body mechanics also increase the odds that injury of the other muscle groups, used to compensate for a weakened knee, may result. In a worst-case scenario, one might cause sustained permanent structural changes.
Maintaining Optimal Knee Function and Stability
The key to maintaining optimal knee function and stability, or preventing further damage, is to strengthen the quads. Before starting an exercise program, make sure to consult with a physician to determine the best approach to strengthen your knees. Additionally, many health clubs have a trainer on staff who can guide you to the appropriate equipment and recommend the best pace for you to safely strengthen your quads.
The following exercises will strengthen all the muscles in the knee and hip:
1) Leg Extensions—Work the large quadriceps muscles that permit full leg extensions.
2) Leg Presses—Great for the knees and also strengthen hamstrings, hips, muscles and gluteals. Maintaining a working balance between all these muscles insures optimal strength while greatly reducing the risk of injury.
3) Lunges—These strengthen the hip and quads, as well as the ankles, hamstrings, gluteals and calves.
Not surprisingly, we’re big proponents of incorporating therapeutic massage into any exercise routine, especially a new one. Massage can minimize the soreness that results from exercising a specific muscle group, aid in recovery, prep the muscles for optimal exertion and help manage pain from an existing injury.