When knees are aching due to injury or arthritis, the last thing you want to think about is moving them around. Turns out, though, that careful, appropriate exercise is one of the best things you can do for knee pain. Regular movement helps keep the joint supple, and strengthening exercises build support in the muscles above and below the knee. Exercise also helps restore mobility and increases range of motion. Fortunately there are ways to exercise safely, even with a knee that’s causing you pain. Here are a few tips to keep in mind, and 10 exercises for knee pain you can try at home.
How do exercises for knee pain work?
Knee pain is one of the most common types of joint pain. Experienced by people of all age and levels of activity, knee pain can be caused either by injury or by overuse. The knee joint is a complex joint that is responsible for bearing all of the weight of the body while moving in different directions.
Tendons in the knee connect the muscle to the bone. There are two important tendons: the quadriceps tendon and the patellar tendon. Cartilage in the knee (menisci) provides a cushion between where the tibia and the femur meet. The final part of this complex joint is the bursae, fluid-filled sacs that are located in front of the patella, on the inner portion of the knee, and just behind the patella. These sacs provide cushion to the whole joint and make movement smooth and fluid.
Because there are so many moving parts to this joint, many different things can go wrong and cause pain. At any point, any one of the bones can suffer injury or misalignment. Additionally, the ligaments and tendons can cause pain from injury or over (or improper) use. There are many different causes of knee pain, and most of them can arise at any age. With some exceptions, most knee pain is caused by one of three things: injury, wear-and-tear, or mechanical issues. Exercises for knee pain can help counteract pain, depending on the cause of pain in the first place. The following video gives a quick overview of knee pain causes and treatments.
Treating knee pain
While some of the conditions that cause knee pain are severe enough to require surgery to repair, many of them respond well to treatment at home or exercises for knee pain.
Since many knee conditions are exacerbated (or caused) by inflammation in the body, reducing inflammation with ice, rest, and diet modifications is an important first step in treatment. Prescription or over-the-counter medications may help ease the pain, but they don’t always help with inflammation. Resting the knee during a flare-up or in the first few days after injury, applying ice, and eating things like turmeric and drinking cherry juice can help soothe inflammation and ease knee pain. After you’ve rested and talked to your doctor about the most appropriate treatment, you can attempt exercises for knee pain to help you relieve pain and prevent future injury.
How to get started with exercises for knee pain
Low-impact exercise that includes regular strength training and flexibility can help treat knee pain and prevent injuries. Common low-impact exercise includes swimming, yoga, and walking. There are even low-impact exercises that can be done either freestanding or with the support of a chair. These exercises address not only knee pain but also pain in the leg and hip, all of which can be related. In addition, they strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee and increase flexibility in the tendons and ligaments. Before you get started with exercises for knee pain, there are some guidelines to keep in mind.
Talk to your doctor
You may have the best intentions and follow-through with your exercise program, but depending on the cause of your pain, certain exercises could exasperate or even worsen your pain. Don’t let that happen. It’s always best to talk to your doctor before attempting any exercise program.
Stick to low-impact, moderate exercise
Walking is a gentle way to strengthen the entire lower body and build knee strength. This form of exercise is particularly beneficial for people at risk for knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found people who walked at least three days each week for up to two hours each day had the healthiest knee cartilage.
Meanwhile, people who engaged in high-impact exercise, such as running, had less healthy cartilage showing signs of degeneration. People who didn’t exercise at all also had unhealthy cartilage. Thirty to 60 minutes of low-impact exercise at least three or four days each week offered the most cartilage-protecting benefits, researchers said.
Avoid deep bending
Squats may tone the glutes, but they can damage the knees, leading to knee pain. Research presented at the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago revealed that frequent knee bending—defined as lasting for longer than 30 minutes each day or more than ten sets of stairs—can lead to cartilage degeneration that can then lead to osteoarthritis.
Build muscle strength
Completing strength-building exercises targeting the muscles surrounding the knee help support it and reduce its load, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Major muscles to focus on include the quadriceps and hamstrings.
Use proper form to prevent knee pain
Protect the knees while exercising by keeping them behind the toes. This becomes applicable during stretching and some aerobic activities, including step. Allowing the knee to extend past the toes increases the pressure placed on the kneecap and elevates injury risk.
10 exercises for knee pain
Once you’ve been cleared by your doctor, here are some exercises for knee pain you can try at home. In addition to the ones we describe below, any low-impact exercises can be a good option. For example, if you have access to a pool, swimming or water aerobics can be great for your knee. Yoga can be incredibly therapeutic, especially if you have an instructor who provides modifications for poses.
1. Partial squats
While bending the knee past 90 degrees may not be possible for some injuries or arthritis knee pain, partial squats help to strengthen the thigh and gluteus muscles to support the knee. Proper form means hinging at the hip joint to keep the knees over the ankles.
Start from a standing position. Inhale deeply, then on an exhale, hinge at your hips and bend into a squat. Inhale to come up. Repeat two or three sets of ten.
You can also do one set of five but hold the squat for five breaths instead of coming immediately up. Make sure to keep your tailbone tucked and lower belly lifted, engaging your core to support your lower back. For even more support, complete this exercise with a yoga block held between your thighs. This will keep your inner thighs engaged.
2. Inner thigh lifts
This exercise balances the support of the knee by building the often-neglected inner thigh muscles. The inner thigh muscles contribute to stability in all of our movement, but they are often weak and dominated by the strong muscles of the outer thigh and gluteus maximus.
Lie on your left side, this time with your head resting on your left arm. If it works for your knee, bend your right leg and place that foot on the floor behind your left leg. If it doesn’t, just move the right leg back and out of the way. On an inhalation, engage the muscles of the left inner thigh to lift the left leg. Exhale and lower down. Repeat two or three sets of ten on both legs.
You can also do this exercise in a chair. Raise one leg at a time, until it’s parallel with the floor. Hold for five seconds, and repeat two or three times. This exercise can also be done with ankle weights for added resistance.
Again, it doesn’t matter how high the leg comes off the floor. You may be surprised at how difficult this exercise is, even with just a little lift.
3. Side leg lifts (lying down)
These exercises for knee pain strengthen the outer leg muscles all the way down the leg. Lie on your left side with your left arm propping up your upper body and your right hand on the floor in front of you. On an inhalation, lift your right leg up into the air slowly, then lower on an exhalation. Do this movement very slowly for maximum benefit, and concentrate on lifting with the muscles of the leg, not the belly or the lower back. Repeat two or three sets of ten. Perform the same movement on the other leg.
It doesn’t matter how high up you lift your leg. The strengthening comes from using the correct muscles in a deliberate way. Go slowly and feel your outer leg muscles engage.
4. Calf stretches
These simple exercises for knee pain helps strengthen and lengthen calf muscles to support the back of the knee. Start with a stretch in each calf. Flex your foot and place your toes against a wall, with your heel on the ground (the foot will be diagonal to the wall). Inhale, then on an exhale, lean forward, stretching the calf. Do not hyperextend the knee when you do this stretch. Press firmly down on your big toe or put a slight bend in the knee to prevent hyperextension. Hold the stretch for at least five breaths, then repeat on the other side.
5. Calf raises
For calf raises, stand facing a wall, about arm’s length away, and simply move your body from standing with flat feet to standing on tiptoe by raising and lowering your heels. For more of a challenge, do one foot at a time or do this on stairs, dipping the heel below the step when you lower. Again, be mindful of hyperextension. Protect the knees by putting a small bend in them.
6. Hamstring stretches
Our hamstrings can be a common source of knee pain. Tight hamstrings also do not allow the knees and legs to move in their full range of motion. It is important to stretch these long, large muscles that slide down the backs of the upper thighs.
If your lower back is pain-free, an easy way to stretch the hamstrings is a forward fold. Inhale and raise your arms above your head, then on an exhale, hinge at the hips and fold forward. Bend your knees if you need to in order to place your hands on the ground. Keep your belly engaged, and breathe as you fold forward. Make sure the weight is balanced over your feet. Don’t lean back on your heels or forward on your toes.
You may have difficulty reaching the ground at first. Use yoga blocks to bring the ground up to you, and practice forward folds daily. Don’t push until it hurts. Come to the place where you feel a stretch and then stay there for five to ten breaths. Your hamstrings will relax and release over time.
If you have pain in your lower back, do the same forward fold but at the wall. Inhale and on an exhale, fold your body into an L-shape, placing your hands on the wall. Engage your core to support your lower back, and breathe as your hamstrings stretch.
7. Bridge pose
You can strengthen the hamstrings by doing a bridge pose. Lay flat on the back, with the feet on the floor or resting on the seat of a chair, located in a place where it will not slip, arms by the side. Slowly lift the hips into the hair, pressing into the feet and feeling the hamstrings contract. Hold for two to three seconds and return the hips to the floor. Repeat five times.
Walking is a great low-impact way to improve overall fitness and keep joints healthy. It’s also one of the best exercises for knee pain. This is a weight-bearing exercise that offers many of the benefits of running but is safe for those with knee pain, especially due to arthritis. Build up to 45 minutes of either walking at least four times a week for the most benefit. Just 6,000 steps a day help to build healthy knee cartilage and decrease knee pain.
Bike riding is a great way to rehabilitate a knee after surgery and to keep joints fluid and mobile for those with arthritis. For people recuperating from knee surgery or an injury, riding a stationary bike can also helpful, according to Massachusetts General Hospital. Biking runs the knee through a good range of motion without stressing it, while elevating the heart rate and strengthening the leg muscles. While in recovery, limit bike sessions to 15 minutes maximum, two times per day. Bike riding is also helpful for people with osteoarthritis.
If you do ride bikes, make sure to incorporate other strengthening exercises into your routine to ensure you don’t cause more pain by overdeveloping your quadriceps.
10. Tai chi
Tufts University School of Medicine has found that people over 65 years of age with osteoarthritis can improve their function and reduce pain by participating in regular tai chi exercises.
The researchers also noticed that a reduction in pain wasn’t the only benefit. They also found that self-efficacy and their quality of life improved markedly. The tai chi group also had reduced depression symptoms. That helps make tai chi one of the best exercises for knee pain.
If you’re ready to get started with exercises for knee pain today, it’s time to talk to a doctor about your options. The appropriate exercises can help you reduce pain and get back to your life. If you don’t already have a pain doctor, click the button below to find one in your area.