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7 Ways to Pain-Proof Your Knees

Say goodbye to the problem plaguing roughly one in five adults

Achy knees? You’re not alone. Out of the roughly 30 percent of adults reporting some type of joint pain, knee pain topped the list (18 percent have it), according to a survey by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, knee pain was reported twice as much as shoulder pain, followed by finger and hip pain.

Knees may hurt for a number of reasons. For one, they lack the mobility of other joints, which makes them more vulnerable to injury. The shoulder moves in circles, for example, and even the ankle moves side-to-side as well as front and back. But stabilizers in the knee allow it to move only forward and back and only slightly side-to-side.

Knee pain can also crop up from a former injury, osteoarthritis or simple muscle tightness.

(MORE: What is Causing Your Leg Pain Burning and Numbness)

Try these proactive ways to keep your knees strong and healthy:

1. Strengthen your muscles Building up the muscles that support and stabilize your knees can prevent knee pain. A muscle like the iliotibial band (IT band), for example, which runs from the top of the hip to the outside of the knee, can tighten, causing pain — particularly in runners. Other muscles that support the knee include the four muscles of the quadriceps and the hamstrings.

“In general, keep all lower body muscles strong, with a focus on hip muscles and hamstrings,” says Dr. C. David Geier, Jr., an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, S.C. “Include core strengthening exercises (e.g. plank) as well, which also relates to knee stability.”

2. Walk and stay active Walking more than 6,000 steps a day may help you keep moving if you’re at risk for osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, according to a new study by the National Institutes of Health and published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research. As the leading cause of functional limitations (being unable to perform everyday tasks), 80 percent of people with OA have difficulty climbing stairs and walking.

The study showed that walking 1,000 steps each day linked to a 16 to 18 percent reduction in functional limitations two years later. Researchers encourage walking at least 3,000 or more steps per day, progressing to 6,000 steps. “It’s healthy for cartilage when you keep joints moving,” says Dr. Jay Patel, orthopedic surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute, Irvine, Calif.

(MORE: Stretches and Exercises for Tired, Achy Legs)

3. Lose weight if you’re overweight Less weight on your knee joint means less risk of knee pain, says Patel. “Each pound you lose translates to four times less pressure on your knees. So if you lose 10 pounds, it’s 40 pounds less pressure on your knees.”

The Arthritis Foundation cites obesity as the biggest risk factor for osteoarthritis of the knee. The excess weight puts a strain on the knee and causes cartilage to wear away. In addition, fat cells are believed to produce inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that contribute to arthritis.

4. Warm up thoroughly It’s tempting to skip the warm-up and get right to your exercise program, but doing so could put undo stress on your knees. Jumping into a workout without warming up your muscles can cause joint pain, especially as you age, says Dr. David Kruse, board certified sports medicine specialist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute, Irvine, Calif.

“Aging creates a natural decline in tissue flexibility, and a thorough warm-up helps accommodate those changes,” notes Kruse. Five to 10 minutes of light cardio (you should just break a sweat) helps get blood flow to the muscles and lessens knee pain risk.

5. Focus on low impact activities If you’ve been running your whole life and never had problems with your knees, you’re lucky, says Patel. “But for the most part, high-impact activities such as running can be hard on the joints after age 50.”

Common sense prevails. In general, if it hurts, don’t do it. Non-impact activities (where at least one foot remains in touch with the ground at all times) are easier on joints and can ease and prevent knee pain. “If you’re having pain try biking, swimming, elliptical, walking, doubles tennis, golf or yoga,” says Patel.

6. Try a knee brace Ranging in complexity from a band around the kneecap to more elaborate devices, knee braces can help relieve pain in several ways, says Patel. “Some help improve the tracking of the knee cap, others reduce swelling and still others provide stability and improve knee mechanics,” he notes.

Although it’s best to seek advice from an orthopedic doctor to find a brace that’s best for you, there’s no harm in wearing one, says Patel. An over-the-counter neoprene sleeve with a kneecap cutout may help reduce knee joint fatigue, retain heat and support the knee cap, which can reduce pain.

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7. Avoid too many cortisone injections Getting repeated cortisone injections to relieve pain can backfire over time, says Patel, although what constitutes “too many” varies depending on many factors. Powerful anti-inflammatory medication, corticosteroids (cortisone) offer fast pain relief of inflamed joints and tendons. “Too much steroid in the knee may be toxic to the cartilage,” says Patel. “Plus, you’re treating the pain, not the cause of the pain.”

Talk to your doctor about developing a plan to address the true cause of your pain.

Next Avenue contributor Linda Melone is a California-based freelance writer specializing in health, fitness and wellness for women over 50.

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