We are suffering from an epidemic of knee pain in the U.S. Some 34 percent of Americans over the age of 54 say they suffer from chronic knee or leg pain. In many cases, knee pain results in surgery: Some 7 million Americans (about 1.5 percent) have had a knee replacement. That’s a lot of pain, and a lot of surgery.
The truth is, nearly everyone’s knees will give them trouble eventually. Depending on how old you are, at some point, the knee just degenerates. I call this kind of degenerative joint disease the Final Common Pathway. As a knee surgeon who has helped thousands of patients with knee pain, I know there are treatments and options that can not only reduce the pain, but also postpone knee surgery — or avoid it entirely.
Here are my 7 keys to knee health:
The more you know about your knee in terms of specific conditions, pain control, lifestyle changes and what you can expect from a treatment, the better you can manage the outcome. Being educated also helps you have reasonable expectations for how your knees work and feel, and helps you maximize how they perform. It will help you communicate more clearly with your physician and better understand the range of medical and surgical options – the benefits and the risks.
Pay attention to the what, not the why.
The knee may look simple from the outside, but it’s one of the largest, most complex joints in the human body. There are many common causes of knee pain: arthritis, ligament tears, cysts in the back of the knee, pain behind the kneecap, or trauma to knee bones, ligaments and tendons. But for most adults, what you do to treat the knee is more important than why it went “bad.” Many of the best treatments are the same regardless of the cause and can help postpone or even eliminate the need for surgery.
Commit to a knee-centric lifestyle.
Start with the decision to change your lifestyle to help improve the health and strength of your knees. Among knee pain’s causes, most are not serious or rare, and some are not even located in the knees, such as back pain. Moreover, studies are finding a link between depression and knee pain. So taking better care of your physical and mental health will further benefit your knees. These don’t have to be radical changes, either. The simplest changes can help stave off the prospect of knee surgery.
Lighten up by halving your portions.
For each pound your body carries, your knees endure four pounds of pressure. If you weigh 200 pounds, 800 pounds are exerted on your knees as you walk. The pressure increases for more strenuous activities, such as climbing stairs, tennis or jogging. Even losing ten pounds relieves 40 pounds of pressure on your knees. Though patients often counter they’re in too much pain to exercise, exercise is a surprisingly minor component of the weight loss puzzle. What you eat is far more important — and one of the most effective ways to lose weight is simply to cut your portions in half.
Drink water, and more water.
All knees contain cartilage, the soft spongy tissue which lines the ends of our joints and enables pain-free motion as we walk, run and bend. Cartilage is comprised mostly of water — up to 80 percent when we’re properly hydrated. But the older we get, the lower the water content gets (to as low as 70 percent), which can result in unhealthy cartilage and hasten the development of degenerative joint disease. So make sure you drink that water. Drinking a glass before and after each meal also helps control your appetite.
Take glucosamine and turmeric.
It’s true that some doctors shy away from recommending supplements. But many doctors, including myself, believe that supplements, generally safer than many other treatments, are well worth the try. I recommend include both glucosamine sulfate and turmeric. The National Institutes of Health state that glucosamine sulfate is “likely effective” for treating osteoarthritis. Turmeric is a well-studied natural remedy, used medicinally for thousands of years. Both have anti-inflammatory properties, and turmeric was found to ease pain as well as ibuprofren by recent research.
Keep moving, however you can.
Movement promotes knee health, as it helps keep the cartilage alive and healthy. Unlike most other tissues in the body, cartilage lacks blood vessels to carry nutrients into it. So knee cartilage depends on movement to stay alive, healthy and heal. Choose your favorite activity and build up to 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. It doesn’t have to be done all once and it doesn’t have to be strenuous: moderate is fine. Include warming up and stretching. Play music (it’s a motivator), and find an exercise buddy to stay on track.
Gregory M. Martin, M.D. is a board certified, Harvard fellowship-trained knee surgeon. He is an accomplished physician, instructor, author, lecturer, researcher and designer of knee replacement techniques. He is on a Fellow of both the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons. He has a thriving private practice in Palm Beach County, Florida. His new book is “Education 4Knees: Everything You Need to Know for Happy, Healthy and Pain-Free Knees. Check him out at www.education4knees.com.