A little bit of knee anatomy (for anyone)…
Sure, knees act up on occasion as they are doing a lot of work between two of the longest bones of the body—the tibia (aka shin bone) and the femur (aka thigh bone). One other bone meets between the two to complete the cartilage coated menagerie. This bone is the knee cap (aka the patella). (There is one other bone just next to the shin bone (tibia) known as the fibula, which is located next to the shin bone and knee joint.)
The knee is a a ‘hinge’ joint, like the elbow, meaning the movement is forward and backward.
There are two types of cartilage of this hinge joint: articular and meniscus. Smooth articular cartilage covers the ends of the bones (loss of it could result in arthritis) and the other, meniscus cartilage, sits between the end of the thigh bone and top of the shin bone and acts as a shock absorber. Tears to this cartilage are often referred to as meniscus tear. Read more about meniscus tears here.
Ligaments connect bones to bones.
These ligaments trap the three major bones of the menagerie into place. There are four major ligaments that sound the knee joint. Two of them are in the center and criss cross below the knee cap (anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments) and there is also one on each side of the knee joint, outside the knee cap – both inner and outer sides (medial and lateral collateral ligaments).
Tendons connect bones to muscles.
And, muscular energy helps to move the knee joint forward and back. When the muscles are activated or contracted, this pulls the tendon and the bone moves.The quadricpes muscles (or the four front thigh muscles) provide strength to knee extension (straightening) and the hamstrings (or back of the thigh muscles) that run down the back of the leg from the base of the pelvis to just below the knee and provide power for flexion (bending).
Weakness in the knees can be a part of the natural aging process, however, a relentless sedimentary lifestyle combined with flexibility imbalances, misalignment, weak leg muscles, poor joint stability, unmindful wear and tear, tight hips / shoulders, or gripping, pulling, pushing or over-doing the leg / knee / hip into some sort of unprepared position or exertion can end up in a painful situation. Have you been there?
7 tips for healthy knees.
A balanced and even use of alignment and of muscular energy in the legs can help to delay cartilage deterioration and prevent injuries. In addition, if the larger joints of the body are tight, for example the hips, it’s typically the smaller joints that take the brunt of our physical efforts, ah-hem the knees. So, the following tips are geared around building strength in the legs, opening the hips and inviting a healthy awareness into the body.
Note, all exercises should be done without pain, clicking or burning sensations. If you are experiencing any of these, perhaps you should see a doctor.
1. Standing knee bend (Utkatasana / Chair Pose Variation) for quadricep strength:
Stand with feet hip-distance width apart (center of the ankle in line with the front of the hip points). This can be done with hands on the back of a chair, slowly squatting as if you were going to sit down, not allowing the knees to go past the toes. Or, this can also be done with your back against a wall, instead of moving up and down, remain in the squatting position.
Whichever position you choose, ensure all four corners of the feet are making contact with the ground—you can practice feeling this sensation by lifting all ten toes. Ensuring all four corners of the feet are connecting with the ground (ball of the big toe; ball of the little toe; inner heal; outer heal), invites your body to use all the muscles of the quadriceps creating a balanced and even action. Do 8-10 reps a couple times each day.
2. Deep squat (Malasana / Frog Pose) for hip opening:
Stand with your feet hip-distance width a part (see notes above) or a little wider for this posture if needed. If there is no pain in the knees, keeping your heels on the floor or up on a rolled blanket, squat down as deeply as possible by pushing your butt back. Lean your torso forward and place your elbows toward the inner part of the knee with the palms of your hands together in front of your heart. If you find it easier, or if you fall over, sit on a bolster, some books or blocks. Stay for 30-60 seconds for 10 long breaths.
3. Tree pose (Vrksasana) for strength and balance:
Stand with your feet together and your hands on your hips or palms together in front of the heart. Shift your weight onto your left foot, raise your right foot and place it against the inside of left shin below the knee. Rotate your right knee outward to open up your hip. Keep your hands where they are or raise them overhead. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds and then change legs.
4. Be careful of hyperextension:
A hyperextended knee happens when the knee extends past a normal range of motion in the straight position—the knee essentially bends back on itself. If you’re prone to hyperextension, keep a slight bend in the knees when exercising, performing yoga standing poses and keep your weight evenly distributed on the four corners of your feet.
5. Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana) to open the hips and groin:
Sit with your legs straight out in front of you, sit up on a blanket if your hips or groins are tight. Gently bend the legs and invite your heels toward your pelvis, then drop your knees out to the sides and press the soles of your feet together. Sit up tall and stay for 1 to 5 minutes.
6. Rock / Thunderbolt pose (Vajrasana) to strengthen the knee cap:
Begin in a kneeling position, on your shins, then sit down so that the sit bones come down toward the heels with knees and toes together; hips directly above knees and tops of the feet lying flat on the ground. Next, allow the heels of the feet to fall outwardly so that the sit bones come in contact with the inner edges of the feet. Sit up tall and stay for 1 to 5 minutes.
7. Non-violence and mindfulness:
When practicing yoga, exercising or doing any physical activity, remember to be mindful of your body. Not forcing, pushing or over exerting the body will help to keep it healthy and pain-free.