12 Exercises for Knee Pain


12 Effective Exercises to Relieve Knee Pain

“Pain can afflict any joint, but one of the most challenging areas to manage is the knee. Given the constant demand they face, bearing the weight of your body day after day, knees undergo significant wear and tear. Consequently, when knee pain surfaces, it can be incapacitating and severely impact your daily mobility.”

Knee Pain Causes

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The intricate nature of the knee joint renders it particularly vulnerable to injuries and the effects of wear and tear.

A knee joint comprises ligaments, cartilage, and bone, surrounded by muscles and tendons that facilitate joint movement. According to Shelby York, a physical therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, injury or damage to any of these components can result in knee pain.

Knee pain is a common experience for most individuals, and its causes can vary depending on age. Younger adults often encounter knee pain due to acute injuries or overuse from strenuous physical activities, as noted by Dr. Daniel Diaz, a sports medicine specialist and medical director of sports medicine at AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles. However, for older adults, knee pain can stem from age-related factors such as arthritis.

The primary causes of knee pain encompass:

  1. Trauma or Overuse: Knee tendonitis, a frequent source of knee pain, typically arises from overuse injuries, commonly affecting runners and athletes. Dr. Taylor Dunphy, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, explains that tendonitis can impact tendons like the hamstrings, quadriceps, and patellar (knee cap) tendons. The iliotibial band (IT band), which extends from the hip to the outside of the knee, can also become tight and inflamed due to overuse, resulting in knee pain. This type of pain is often described as achy and aggravated by activity, though it is generally not debilitating.
  2. Sports Injuries: Knee pain from sports injuries is prevalent across different age groups, according to Gary Calabrese, senior director of rehabilitation and sports medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. The three most common sites of knee pain related to sports include:
    • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL): An internal ligament within the knee, susceptible to injury, causing over 125,000 injuries annually.
    • Medial collateral ligament (MCL): Situated on the outside of the joint, MCL injuries often result from external impact or blows to the outer knee.
    • Meniscus: Injuries to the meniscus, a crescent-shaped cartilage piece between the thigh bone and lower leg, frequently occur due to sudden twisting, leading to swelling, pain, and knee locking.
  3. Osteoarthritis of the Knee: Knee arthritis is categorized as a “wear-and-tear” issue wherein the knee’s natural shock absorber, the cartilage, deteriorates. This happens when the cartilage lining the ends of the knee joint bones thins, causing increased friction and resulting in dull pain, swelling, and reduced joint mobility. The severity of cartilage thinning can vary from mild to severe, often associated with factors such as age and body weight. Knee arthritis typically has a gradual onset and progresses over time.
  4. Other Conditions: Knee pain can also be attributed to less common medical conditions, including gout, fibromyalgia, and infections.

Regardless of the underlying cause of knee pain, there are effective strategies to alleviate it. Targeted at-home exercises can significantly strengthen the muscles and ligaments around the knee, promoting improved function and healing. Some of these exercises include:

  • Calf stretch.
  • Calf raises.
  • Clam-shell hip exercise.
  • Glute bridge.
  • Forward step-up.
  • Standing elastic hip abductions.
  • Quadriceps set.
  • Step-downs from a stair.
  • Single leg raise.
  • Half squats.
  • Long arc quad.
  • Recumbent bike exercise.

For example, the calf stretch involves standing in front of a wall with hands for support, taking slow steps backward to stretch the calf muscles gently, holding for 30 to 45 seconds, and repeating three to five times. Calf raises, on the other hand, involve standing with support, lifting onto your toes for two seconds, and lowering slowly for four seconds. This exercise can be repeated 12 times, one to three times a day.

By incorporating these exercises into your routine, you can effectively address knee pain and improve joint health.”

Clam-shell hip exercise

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To enhance the strength of your hip muscles, assume a lateral position with your knees bent at a 45-degree angle. For added comfort, place a cushion between your knees and rest your head on your lower arm.

Certify that your hip bones are aligned, as the upper hip tends to incline backward, warns Calabrese.

As you raise your upper knee, ensure your feet remain in contact with each other and avoid any shifting of your hips or pelvis. Keep the lower leg grounded, then slowly revert to the initial position. Take a moment to relax. Repeat this sequence 12 times, three times daily.

Engage Your Glutes with the Bridge Exercise

While lying flat on your back, bend your knees to a comfortable angle, approximately 90 degrees, while keeping your feet firmly planted on the floor. Gradually elevate both hips towards the ceiling. For an added challenge, you can introduce a mini-band around your knees, as suggested by Calabrese. Perform three sets of 10 repetitions to maximize the benefits.

Forward step up

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According to Madison Franek, a physical therapist with UNC Health in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, an exercise can help strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves to battle general knee pain. The exercise involves standing with the affected leg on top of a 4- to 6-inch step and the unaffected leg on the ground, with the toes up so they aren’t touching the floor. If balance is an issue, stand next to a steady object, such as a handrail, that you can use for support. In a controlled fashion, step up with the affected leg by imagining you’re driving your foot through the step to the ground. With your unaffected leg, reach back in a controlled manner toward the ground and repeat. After stepping up, reach back with your unaffected leg toward the ground in a controlled manner and repeat. Aim to do two or three sets of six to eight repetitions.

Here are some other exercises that can help alleviate knee pain:

  1. Standing elastic hip abductions: This exercise strengthens the hip muscles to maintain knee stability. While standing, place a small elastic band around your ankles. While keeping the other leg stationary, move one leg sideways until the band is fully stretched. Return the leg to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg. Hold on to a table or chair for balance if you need to. Repeat two sets of 10 per leg.
  2. Quadriceps set: To do this quadriceps-strengthening exercise, lie or sit with your leg out straight. Tighten the muscle in the front of your thigh as much as you can, pushing the back of your knee flat against the floor. Tightening your muscle will pull your kneecap up toward your thigh and hip. Hold the muscle tight for five seconds. Do 12 repetitions of this exercise, three times a day.
  3. Step-downs from a stair: This exercise strengthens the hip muscles in a functional movement pattern while mimicking stair-climbing. Stand on the stair that’s lowest to the ground. While standing sideways, gradually lower the foot that’s closest to the ground off the stair. Bring it back to the stair. Do two sets of 10 for each leg.
  4. Single leg raise: This exercise involves lying on the floor on your back. Your elbows should be directly under your shoulders to support your upper body, and your legs should be out straight. Bend the knee on the side that isn’t injured, so that your foot is flat on the floor. Tighten the thigh muscle of the other leg, and lift the leg straight up from the floor about 6 to 10 inches. Hold the position for five seconds, then release and bring the leg down. Complete three sets of 10 repetitions.
  5. Half squats: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Reach your arms straight out in front of you, or gently place them on the tops of your thighs, but don’t put pressure on them; doing so can create a greater challenge for the knees that would be best to avoid. You can also hold onto the back of a chair or the wall for balance. Keeping your spine straight, slowly lower your hips about 10 inches as though you were going to sit in a chair. Keep your weight in your heels and hold that position for five seconds. Push up from the heels to come to a full standing position. Complete three sets of 10 repetitions.
  6. Long arc quad: Also called leg extensions, this exercise helps build up the quadriceps muscles along the front of the thigh. While sitting on a chair with your back straight, tighten your thigh muscles, and straighten at the knee to raise your leg. Squeeze your thigh muscles, and hold that position for five seconds. Relax the foot back to the floor. Be careful not to swing your leg. Complete three sets of 10 repetitions.
  7. Recumbent bike exercise: Using a recumbent bike is a great way to increase range of motion while minimizing the forces that are placed on the knee joint.

In addition to these exercises, there are a few other things you can do to prevent or alleviate knee pain, such as wearing the right shoes, warming up before exercising and cooling down after exercising, alternating the type of exercise you do, and practicing the RICE method (resting, icing the area, using compression to help control swelling, and elevating your knee) during a flare-up. Getting and staying more active can help support good joint health and keep knee pain at bay. Low-impact exercises, such as cycling, swimming, and short walks, reduce knee stress and can help alleviate pain. Regular stretching of the hip, knee, and ankle muscles can also enhance flexibility for daily movement.

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