I’m not sure of the exact moment I injured my knee. It may have happened when I was rearranging the furniture in my office, or it might have been the result of playing too hard with the dog I’d been watching that week. What I remember most from the beginning was waking up in the middle of the night with a terrible pain in my left knee. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, and though I eventually fell back to sleep, the pain was still there in the morning.
I stubbornly continued with my routine, expecting things to get back to normal any minute. Despite sharp pains and a burning sensation, I walked a mile to the college where I was teaching at the time. I barely made it as my steps got smaller and smaller. I tried to walk without bending my leg, and my knee felt like it would buckle at any point.
Looking back a year later, I’m appalled at how poorly I treated a part of my body that was in need of attention and care. At 26, I’d never lost any major physical abilities. I’d never had a broken leg or even a sprained ankle to slow me down, and as a runner and hiker, I took my ability to walk for granted.
It took months for the pain to lessen and some flexibility to return. During that time, I picked up bits of advice from medical professionals, from friends, and from the internet that helped me through the healing process. Here are a few strategies for recovering physically and regaining your confidence after a knee injury.
Identify Your Knee Injury
While mild knee pain is normal for many people, sharp, severe pains that last more than a few days can point to a serious injury. There are many common causes of knee pain, including sprains and tears of the ligaments, tears of the cartilage, and various forms of arthritis. Many knee injuries will heal on their own over time. However, because some conditions require surgery to properly heal, it is important to consult a medical professional to get an accurate diagnosis. Aside from identifying the type of injury you have, doctors and physical therapists can recommend exercises and treatment plans and help monitor your condition throughout recovery, ensuring you don’t worsen your injury.
Manage the Pain
As with many injuries, knee pain can seem like a dark cloud that follows you around. It can sap your energy and keep you in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction with the world. Stairs become tedious. Carrying more than a few groceries becomes impossible. And because it can be difficult to properly support an injured knee for long, even sitting through a movie becomes a chore. The pain in my knee and the knowledge that it would be a long time before I would recover kept me from enjoying so many moments.
That’s why it is important to find healthy ways to treat the pain. Though a doctor may recommend prescription strength pain medications, there are a number of natural ways you can relieve knee pain. The “RICE” method is a good place to start. This acronym stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This can prevent pain and swelling while also promoting faster healing and improved flexibility, especially early in your recovery. When used in moderation, herbal ointments and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen can also relieve your pain and allow you to enjoy your daily life.
Rebuild Strength and Flexibility Slowly
Though you should take some time to heal from an immediate injury, the time off your feet will cause the muscles around your knee to weaken, which could lead to another injury later. You should always ask a doctor or physical therapist if you’re ready for particular exercises.
Some soreness is normal for any physical activity. However, in this case, the motto “no pain, no gain” isn’t necessarily the best advice. Especially if you feel a sharp, stabbing pain in your knee during exercise, you should stop and rest. Regaining strength in small increments is better than worsening your injury.
Once I made some progress with the pain and lack of flexibility, I found the following simple exercise effective in beginning to regain strength in the muscles around my knee.
1. Lie flat on your back, preferably on a stable surface such as the floor.
2. The leg of your injured knee should be straight. The other leg should be bent, with that foot flat on the floor.
3. Keeping the injured leg straight, slowly lift the leg until your injured knee is even with your bent knee. Carefully lower your leg.
4. Repeat this several times with each leg. Again, be conscious of any sudden pain, and don’t overexert yourself.
I still enjoy hiking and jogging, though bicycling has become my go-to form of cardiovascular exercise. Because it’s a lower impact activity and non-weight-bearing, cycling is much easier on the knees and other joints than running. Especially early in the recovery process, cycling was the only way I could get a steady workout and strengthen the muscles around my injured knee. If you have access to a gym, stationary bikes can be a low risk way to test your ability to cycle without the need to travel a long distance. Though if you live in a bike friendly city, cycling can be a great way to earn back some independence with your mobility.
Believe in Your Recovery
One of the biggest challenges for me, and for many athletes and other people who have suffered injuries that affect basic physical abilities, was moving beyond the psychological barrier that occurs after an injury. Once you lose that ability and trust in your own body, it’s difficult to believe in yourself again, even during the most basic tasks. For me, it was — and sometimes still is — difficult to believe my knee won’t come out from under me during exercise and daily activities. I have to remind myself that I’ve taken the time to recover and put in the work to rebuild the muscles around my injured knee. Though I don’t push myself beyond reason, I deserve to enjoy the walks, runs, bike rides I love.