The Female Knee
Estrogen is the primary female hormone and it also “makes our ligaments more lax or loose,” says Virtua orthopedic surgeon Dr. Laura Ross, DO.
Ligaments are stretchy bands of tissue that connect our bones to one another. They provide strength and stability to our knees. Because our ligaments are more lax, we need to be extra careful about the way we move our knees.
We also have to compensate for what doctors call our “Q” angle. This represents the angle formed by an imaginary line drawn from the top of the upper leg/outer hip down to the knee.
“Once our hips first begin to widen during puberty, that’s when our Q angle increases and the mechanics of our knees change,” says Dr. Ross. “We are perhaps at greatest risk of injury when that change first takes place, which explains the recent focus on sports injuries in young female athletes. But these are also issues that women of all ages need to know about.”
Video: Knowing When Surgery is the Answer to Knee Pain
Common Knee Ailments and Injuries
The three women’s knee issues that Dr. Ross sees most frequently in her practice are:
This condition occurs with overuse or injury to the cartilage directly under your kneecap. “You may hear a pop, crack, or other funny noise when you bend, walk, or climb stairs,” says Dr. Ross. “This can occur with or without pain, but even if it doesn’t hurt, it is an early warning sign and it might get worse.” The best way to treat or prevent this condition is to strengthen the quadriceps muscles.
The menisci are two small pieces of cartilage that absorb shock inside your knee. “Meniscal injuries occur when your foot is planted and you twist to a degree that causes a tear,” says Dr. Ross. “These injuries usually cause intense, deep-seated pain inside the knee.”
Depending on the location of the tear, it’s possible for a meniscal injury to heal on its own. But certain parts of the menisci don’t have sufficient blood supply to self-heal. Physical therapy, a knee brace, or anti-inflammatory medication may aid with healing; in more severe cases, surgery is advised.
Runners knee (iliotibial band syndrome)
For female runners and walkers who cover serious mileage each week, iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) is an all-too-common foe. “The iliotibial band is a tendon that comes from the hip and attaches to the outer side of the knee,” explains Dr. Ross. “If it’s not stretched properly before exercise, it can become inflamed, possibly causing such pain that you may not feel able to run or walk at all.”
Once you’ve developed ITBS, you will most likely need physical therapy and/or anti-inflammatory medication to recover. But it can often be prevented through adequate warm up/cool down and proper shoe wear.
Preventing Knee Issues
Paying special attention to three simple steps can go a long way toward preserving healthy knees:
Every expert we’ve ever interviewed on the subject of exercise has emphasized the importance of stretching before your workout: Dr. Ross is no exception.
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Proper Body Mechanics
“If you lift weights and work out with machines at a gym you might choose ‘closed chain’ exercises (as opposed to ‘open chain’ exercises) to try to avoid knee injury,” advises Dr. Ross.
In a closed chain exercise for the legs, your foot will be continually pressed against a firm surface for the duration of the movement. “And if you are doing squats or lunges, you must take special care not to bend your knees past 90 degrees.”
Video: How to Do a Perfect Squat
Don’t skimp on your sneaks: According to Dr. Ross, you should replace your exercise footwear every 6 months, at minimum. Replace it more often if you’re a daily distance runner or walker.
They don’t need to be expensive shoes, but they do need to be comfortable and supportive.