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By Diane Spicer
Knee injury prevention for hikers is a much happier topic than knee rehabilitation or knee surgery, wouldn't you agree?
I am firmly in the camp of PREVENTION.
But of course, that requires
It's a price I am willing to pay for fully functional knees, and I hope you are, too.
What's that old saying about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure?
Let's begin with a look at the layered structure of your knee.
Once you've looked at that diagram of the soft tissues and bony structures, pull out one of your knees and follow along, using gentle fingertips to probe your knee a little.
The kneecap (patella) is a little triangle of bone which increases the leveraging power of the strong set of muscles on the front of the thigh (quadriceps), and protects (somewhat) the knee joint from impact.
With each step a hiker takes, the patella maintains the position of the anchoring cables (tendons) of thigh muscles so they don't go "off track".
It is possible to overstress this groove, leading to "runner's knee" (patellofemoral stress syndrome), although it's not as common in hikers as it is in runners because hikers tend to move over varied terrain rather than running the same route day in and day out.
Beneath the kneecap is the largest, most complex joint in your body: your knee.
The largest bone of the leg (tibia) is called the shin bone, and we all know how much it hurts when you get kicked there, because there's not a lot of padding on the front of the leg.
There's another, much smaller, bone (fibula) which you can feel as a bony knob on the side of your knee not in contact with the other leg (the lateral, or "to the side" aspect, in other words).
Of course the knee joint isn't bone-on-bone (Ouch!), unless osteoarthritis has inflamed or destroyed the necessary cushioning material called cartilage.
And the bones don't just sit there.
They are held together during movement by ligaments ("ligate", to bind).
Athletes get into trouble when they tear a ligament.
Hikers are endurance athletes, so repetitive motion injury can happen if you hike the same terrain over and over.
Mix it up as much as possible: soft, hard, rocky, uphill, downhill, give your knees a bit of a challenge as you toughen up your legs.
So what does all of this anatomy have to do with knee injury prevention for hikers?
Pay attention to signs of wear and tear on the bones, ligaments or cartilage. These are clues that it's time to get serious about knee injury prevention.
Signs such as?
The "grin and bear it" approach will work for awhile, as will masking the pain with over-the-counter medications.
But ignoring knee pain is not a wise long term strategy. Your knees are your ticket into the backcountry.
When they send you a postcard entitled INFLAMMATION (pain, swelling, heat, loss of mobility), read it and respond to it!
Now for the muscles that make your knees work.
The knee joint has a limited range of motion, compared with your shoulder joint. That's a good thing, given the weight bearing it is responsible for!
Your knee can only bend so far (hinge joint), and will be damaged by extreme motions sustained in falls or trauma.
You have muscles reaching up from the leg to anchor in the knee area, and you have muscles reaching down from the thigh seeking a place to anchor on the leg bones.
This makes sense when you think about
how you can move your knee: it's like a hinge on a door, allowing the
door to swing freely - but with a limited range of motion.
What I'm dancing around here (using my knees, of course) is that there are a lot of tendons anchoring all those muscles to bones in the knee area.
These tendons can be pulled off the bone when the knee is asked (or forced) to perform extreme motions.
Knee injury prevention ensures that you have strong connections between bone and muscle, with lots of surface area on the bones.
That way your knee will withstand the pounding and twists and turns of the trail.
It's also a great idea to eat like the athlete that you are. Hiking nutrition tips are right here for you.
You want strong muscles and stable connections between them and the bones beneath them.
But how to keep them in good shape if you work a desk job or only hike sporadically?
What if you're training for a backpacking trip or thruhike?
Good knee health requires regular exercise, such as daily walks on varied terrain (pounding the pavement is not a great idea day after day).
Cross training each week to strengthen the knee joint works, too:
These activities give your legs exercise which doesn't stress the knee
joints, but does get your heart rate up and blood flowing to your muscles while stretching and strengthening your entire body.
Weight training strengthens the thigh muscles, which can protect this joint and keep the patella on track.
Stretching before a hike is a kind way to alert your knees that some serious work will follow.
Protect the integrity of your ligaments by watching where you put your feet.
Don't run on the trail with lots of weight on your back, unless the grizzly bear is gaining on you (kidding - never run from a bear).
Lose weight if you're above your ideal weight range, and enjoy the fact that your hiking shorts fit better as you take some of the load off your knees.
Consider wearing a knee brace to protect this precious area of mobility.
I've had a few knee issues myself, and here's what I wore on the trail to keep swelling and inflammation during a hike to a minimum.
Some hikers wear orthotics or sole inserts in their boots to help with the alignment of the knee as well as foot problems.
You can visit a friendly podiatrist (foot doctor) to get these.
Or you can purchase a pair and customize them yourself.
It's my goal to help you find high quality trail time, and your healthy knees are an important part of that pursuit.
I see too many hikers waiting until knee injuries arise. I'm hoping you're one of the people who think knee injury prevention for hikers has a nice ring to it.
'Cuz you knee-d your knees.
Okay, I'll stop now ;)
Unless your feet are sore, too. Read this!
Knee Injury Prevention