Some years ago I developed sore knees after a combination of aggravating factors. I had been spending a lot of time sitting at a computer on a chair with my legs curled back and my feet resting on a foot-rail. Then, with no physical preparation, I suddenly took up a couple of intense recreational pursuits that worked my knee joints very hard. It had never occurred to me that I might need to do any muscle stretching or make any concessions to ergonomics as I had never suffered from any kind of inflammation or tightness in my major joints.
It came as a huge shock when, all of a sudden, first one of my knees then the other became so sore that I could hardly walk, let alone enjoy more vigorous activities. The problem started out as aching kneecaps, then progressed to swelling, stiffness, soreness, strange clicking and general weirdness. I wondered if I would ever be able to walk comfortably again.
Here’s what I learned and the formula that helped me. Parts or all of the below might be helpful for anyone suffering from (especially non-degenerative) soreness in various joints, or even RSI (repetitive strain injury, or carpal tunnel syndrome).
A quick course of anti-inflammatory drugs can be helpful, but they can be very bad for your digestive tract and heart in the long term. Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Meloxicam, Vioxx, Celebrex, or Ibuprofen only to treat the initial inflammation, and only with a meal. Ice packs at first and heat packs later are very helpful. Don't forget that the joints need plenty of good old-fashioned rest too.
When sitting at a desk, keep your knees at a gentle angle with your feet in front of the chair. Don’t curl them underneath you. Sitting for most of the day is very unnatural, so exercise as you can and stretch (see below).
If riding a bicycle or off-road motorcycle, horse, or whatever, make sure that the distance between the seat/saddle and your feet is appropriate to minimise the loading on your knee joints. A gentle knee angle is what you want. On a bicycle, your legs should be just shy of fully extended when your pedals are at their lowest point, and you should use an appropriate gear for the slope you are on. Add more or stiffer foam to a dirt bike seat, lower the footpegs, and improve the suspension. If skiing, learn about the correct stance and knee bend, and be aware of the strain that crouching will place on them. For all such sports, lose weight and your knees will benefit!
I’ve found that the single most helpful factor for me has been muscle stretching, which I practice to this day to avoid knee discomfort. Tight muscles pull the tendons and cause them to track poorly through the knee joint, rubbing on rough spots and causing inflammation. Of the many stretching exercises that might assist knee pain, I have settled on two basic stretches that are quick and simple.
Believe it or not, simply touching your toes, or as close as you can get, works wonders. Keep your knees slightly bent, and try to touch your toes. Feel your hamstrings complain about it, and hold the position for at least ten seconds to push past muscular elasticity. Don’t bounce. Straighten up and do it again. The more and longer the better, but I find even a token stretch is of great benefit. A physiotherapist told me that 30 seconds is needed to properly stretch a muscle, but who has that sort of time these days!
To balance the hamstring stretch, pull on your quads by grasping your left foot with your left hand and tugging the foot up and back towards your shoulder. You’ll feel the quad complain and you’ll probably reach for something to lean against with the other hand so you don’t topple over. Hold the stretch for at least ten seconds, let go and repeat with the other foot and hand. Do several sets if possible. Better still, alternate these stretches with touching your toes.
Pre-empt trouble by habitually stretching. First thing in the morning when you get out of bed is ideal. Always stretch several times before exercising, even if going for a walk, but especially before something strenuous. Stretch in the middle of a workout when resting. Listen to your body. If you start to notice a slight discomfort in your joints, immediately stop what you are doing and stretch.
For other joints, try to follow the same principle of stretching the opposing muscles that control the joint.
Strong muscles are able to control your tendons and joints more precisely. As joint health allows, work and build up opposing groups so that your muscle strength is increased and balanced.
Diet and supplements
Certain dietary factors will influence your joint performance. For a start, you should avoid eating anything that is inflammatory, especially foods that are known to be troublesome for you. Again, learn to listen to your body. If certain foods or drinks routinely make your guts or joints feel bad, be suspicious of them. Maybe try avoiding foods that are known to be problematic until you feel better. Fragments of the gliadin protein in gluten (wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats) and the casein protein from dairy products are famously hard to digest, and become inflammatory if taken up by the bloodstream. I’ve read that too much oxalic acid from, say, lots of rhubarb and spinach, can exacerbate joint trouble too.
Most foods will be harmless if your gut lining is intact, so consider looking into the causes of a leaky gut. For starters, have a break from alcohol and sugar, add fibre, and take in some probiotics (good bacteria) in some form. Talk to your doctor about some time out from those ‘non steroidal anti-inflammatory’ drugs I mentioned earlier that you might be on, which includes aspirin by the way (use them in brief bursts for emergencies only if possible, but don't just drop medication on a whim if you've got other conditions that they might be assisting). Go on a bit of a detox or health kick for a while! It might hurt more at first as your chemical props are removed, but when your gut starts to heal, who knows what vicious cycle you might break?
Omega oils, such as those in flax seeds are naturally anti-inflammatory, healing to the gut, and are available pressed and ready to slurp from your health food shop. Vitamin E is good too. Vitamin C is a known natural anti-inflammatory, as is zinc. I keep these supplements in my arsenal ready for use when I feel the twinges setting in. The last two perform double duty for helping stave off colds and flu.
My chiropractor source mentioned at one stage that trace minerals are very important for joints and ligaments, but that with our modern farming practices depleting soils, we are not getting enough. He also said that this effect is poorly recognised. So I take a teaspoon of trace mineral extract from time to time, especially when I feel my knees starting to play up. You can buy trace minerals by the bottle in health food shops or online. The minerals are extracted and concentrated from certain organic soils that have been assayed and found to be rich in a wide variety of minerals. These extracts last me a long time because I don’t overdo them, like anything else. You can have too much of a good thing. Another potentially useful source of trace minerals are sea vegetables. We try to incorporate ground kelp into some spicy dishes now and then, and it just disappears into the background.
My chiropractor also singled out manganese as particularly critical for joint health, so I pop a manganese supplement now and then too. That’s manganese, not magnesium!
Glucosamine supplements are sold everywhere now for joint health, especially for arthritis and so on. Your doctor might tell you that they don’t work, but many people vouch for them. My GP said that glucosamine was one of the few natural products she believed in because it actually has the ability to help rebuild damaged cartilage, and is the only known substance that can do so. My father threw his celebrex away and got by very nicely on glucosamine until doing away with that too. I take one every now and then as needed or as a preventative. When my knees were bad, I found that I did better with a minimal intake of glucosamine. Too much actually made my joints feel worse, though this was only a vague impression at the time.
I have also taken silica supplements from now and then, derived from horsetail herb. Silica is important for connective tissue, though I'm not sure if it was important in my recovery. Millet is apparently a helpful grain in this context.
Boron is a much-neglected trace-mineral that has been depleted from our soils, yet is crucial for bones and joints, among other things. A very informative article on the subject can be found here.
As a matter of principle, I try not to take mineral tablets at the same time together because they can sometimes be antagonistic. I don't know if, say, zinc and manganese compete for absorption, but why risk it? I also prefer to take all of these things with a meal when the body is in digestion mode and any dosage spikes will be spread out by the volume of food.
I have also had some latent repetitive strain injury to my right hand from excessive mouse clicking, and I find that the natural anti-inflammatory regime here seems to help that condition also, though rest is critical too.
A quick expedition to your health food shop with something in the order of a hundred bucks will supply you with goodies that will last ages, and might even save untold trips to doctors and specialists. The above regimen has worked a treat for me, and except for quickly stretching before my daily walk or bicycle ride, and the odd pill popped for good measure on no particular schedule, most of the time I give little thought to it all.
Considering the hassle and horror of immobility or joint replacement surgery, surely this kind of alternative is worth a try.