Accidents happen, and while many knee injuries occur during recreational activities or sports, more happen at work and at home.
Strong muscles stabilize joints. With the knee, having strong and flexible quadriceps and hamstring muscles can prevent minor stresses to the knee from causing significant injury.
Proper footwear can also minimize the risk for knee injury. Wearing shoes that are appropriate for the activity can lessen the risk of twisting and other forces that can stress the knee.
The following recommendations are designed for knee injury prevention, not performance enhancement:
- Flexibility of the Hip and Thigh Musculature
In any injury prevention program, flexibility or a stretching program of the surrounding muscles is crucial. The muscles most important for prevention of knee injuries are the hip and thigh muscles: the gluteals, hip adductors or groin muscles, and the knee flexors and extensors. There are countless stretching programs, but the basic guidelines of warming up prior to exercise still ring true: warm up until you “break a sweat,” stretch each muscle group two to three times, and stretch after activity for your cool down. Stretching does not improve performance but will work to prevent injury and, as a general rule, is an absolute must if you have sustained an injury. Flexibility declines with age, so it is best to incorporate and maintain early on, since flexibility can be difficulty to regain.
- Strengthening of the Hip, Thigh
As with any injury prevention program, strengthening of the muscles surrounding the knee is important. The muscles that should be the focus of a knee injury prevention program are the hip muscles: gluteus maximus or hip extensors; rectus femoris and iliopsoas or hip flexors; and the hip adductors. Also important are the knee joint, knee extensors (quadriceps group) and the knee flexors (hamstring group). Although these are the key muscles to focus on, many sources also recommend strength exercises for the lower-leg muscles such as the ankle plantarflexors and dorsiflexors.
To strengthen these areas, utilize weight machines or some other form of resistance exercise, such as sport cords or resistance tubing. Each exercise should focus on individual muscle groups and be performed in eight to 10 repetitions. Complete at least one set, increasing up to three sets, with at least 20 to 40 seconds of rest between each set. Focus on performing each exercise properly, not on doing a lot of exercise or lifting a great amount of weight.
Another second strength-training option is to use body-weight exercises such as squats, wall squats or lunges. These exercises can be done anywhere, require little space or equipment, and utilize multiple muscle groups. However, often maintaining proper form can be challenging, so use caution.
- Avoid Overtraining, Regardless of Activity Choice
Overtraining is a concern with any activity, be it walking, running, swimming, or the plethora of other choices available to exercisers. The first step in avoiding knee overtraining is to choose your activity wisely to ensure it’s a good fit. For example, if you have many lower-leg problems, knee pain, or a history of back pain, a non-weight-bearing activity such as swimming may be a better choice than running. Then start slowly, with a day of rest between each exercise bout, and progress either by increasing the time of each exercise session or by adding a day of activity per week. For people who like variety, choosing different activities, often called crosstraining, is a good option. Choose a weight-bearing and a non-weight-bearing activity and alternate workouts. Regardless of the activity, be sure to use proper technique, particularly in technique-intense sports such as speed walking or swimming, and always get instruction if needed.