I am 59, and just diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees. I have twice recently been crippled with pain, which improved with pain-killers, rest and ice packs. The specialist has advised swimming, aqua aerobics etc. I walk quite well now and have a bike, but I feel very nervous about cycling. Have you any other ideas?
Perhaps the best thing to be said about your unhappy knees is that you have a diagnosis – and therefore a starting point to work out how to avoid unnecessary grief and pain, and make the most of what your knees can do.
Osteo-arthritis is usually called the “wear and tear” condition – even though there is often a genetic element, and despite the fact that people who are active (and therefore use their joints a lot), do not suffer any more with arthritis than inactive people.
There is lots of good advice online for how to manage your arthritic pain, such as at Arthritis Care. Read up on the condition so you understand better how it comes and goes and what may provoke your painful flare-ups.
When it comes to exercise the golden rule is that you should drop your activity right back during a flare-up, limiting yourself to gentle and regular mobility to stop your knees stiffening up, while not doing anything to aggravate pain. The next rule, however, is that when the knees “quieten down”, you should carefully reintroduce exercise – done right it will not worsen your condition and it could greatly help in several important ways.
First, if you become inactive, other problems tend to set in such as overweight and heart disease. Second, by strengthening your legs and especially the knee muscles, you are taking strain off the joints, which may also reduce pain. Third, if you are going to need or want knee surgery in future, it will work better and you will recover more quickly if your legs and muscles are in good shape. And anyway, life will be very miserable indeed if you stop doing all the normal things you enjoy.
Cycling is pretty good for your dodgy knees because they don’t have to bear your body weight. Before you hit the road though, go to a good cycle shop and ask them to check your bike set-up and riding technique (keeping your knees properly in line when you pedal).
Swimming and aqua sessions are good for the same reason: the water supports your body, thereby reducing the load on your knees. You should, however, avoid frog-kick action (eg breast-stroke legs). Another excellent aqua alternative is running (or walking) in deep water, where your feet don’t touch the ground. Use an aqua belt for best results.
Get into the habit of doing regular knee-strengthening exercises, whether at the gym using weights, or with home exercises. Avoid high impact (running and jumping), deep bends and long kneels (eg, while gardening) and deep squatting or lunging. Regular walking is good. If you’re wary about trying a new activity, start very gently and wait a couple of days to see if you get a reaction. If not, continue cautiously.