Knee Pain while Running? Don’t Blame Arthritis

Is running bad for your knees? Does it cause arthritis?

We get asked these questions a lot, especially by clients who are in their 50s and 60’s and wondering if it’s safe to keep running.

The short answer is no — running is NOT bad for your knees! If you experience knee pain when you run, it’s not that you’ve “aged out” of the sport or that it’s causing arthritis in your knees. This is a very common misconception. In fact, research supports that running may actually be GOOD for your knees!

Staying strong, active, and mobile is your best defense always against osteoarthritis.

Therefore runners, because they are typically active and healthy individuals, often have healthier knees compared to non-runners.

Ok then — so if not arthritis — what really causes knee pain in runners?

In most cases, it’s simply a biomechanical issue that goes unaddressed over time. But the GOOD news is that once identified, these issues can actually be fixed with proper education and strengthening (best offered by movement specialists like us!).

Here are three of the most common factors we see that are often the true culprit of knee pain when you run (not arthritis):

1) Poor ankle mobility

Ankle mobility affects the way force hits your foot, which can impact your knee. If your ankle doesn’t move fully, freely, and adequately, excess forces will be shifted up to your knee. The knee may be forced to flex, rotate, and/or tilt more than it needs to. This, in turn, may result in unwanted loads that the tissues of the knee can’t handle. An expert in biomechanics and movement can not only help you identify if this is the true root of your “knee problem,” but can also help you improve your ankle mobility in order to prevent long term damage to the joints, tendons, and ligaments of your knees. We actually see this as a very common problem in those that have sprained or twisted their ankles in the past. If that’s you, this could be a reason why you’re suffering from knee pain while you run.

2) Weakness in your hips and thighs

There’s a widely perpetuated myth out there that runners don’t need to strength train. That’s simply not true! Adding strength training to your running regimen makes it way less likely that you’ll suffer an injury. When it comes to protecting your knees, developing good, balanced strength in your hips and thighs is critical. The hamstring and quadriceps muscles play a crucial role in stabilizing the patella, otherwise known as your kneecap. Since running is extremely repetitive on your joints, especially your knees, it requires they have good durability and endurance — something that is lost quickly when you neglect proper strength training. Often “wear and tear” in your knees (otherwise known as arthritis) will get blamed for your knee pain when in actuality, the loss of strength around your knees is what’s causing that wear and tear to feel worse than it needs to.

3) Unstable core

It may seem like running is all in the legs, but the stability of your pelvis and trunk have a huge influence on how your legs perform. You derive the majority of your power, speed, and stamina from your core muscles and glutes. Much like with ankle mobility, if your core is not performing adequately or efficiently – your legs will have to work harder. A stable core is key for developing and maintaining good balance and rhythm with any activity – but especially running. With a repetitive activity like running, efficiency and form is everything. Without a strong core, it’s impossible for your leg muscles and knee joints to work as efficiently as they were designed to, and it will be really difficult for you to maintain good and proper running form mile after mile. When your core strength is weak, and doesn’t have enough endurance to sustain the amount of miles you want to run, your knees will suffer.

What’s important for you to remember is that arthritis is NORMAL — everyone gets it as they age. 

What doesn’t have to be “normal” is for arthritis to stop you from running, or doing any other activity that you love. You can get surgery to fix the “wear and tear” in your knees, or injections to decrease the inflammation, but if you don’t check and address any underlying biomechanical issues, these fixes will be temporary and your knee pain will keep coming back. And worse… they could force you to stop running all together!

If you’re suffering from knee pain and it’s starting to impact your ability to run or do any other activity that you love, you might want to join us for our next live Zoom workshop: Preventing and Overcoming Knee Pain so you don’t have to stop activities you love! 

It’s FREE and happening on Tuesday, Aug 25th, from 6-7pm. Just follow this link to reserve your virtual seat.

Research shows MRI’s not reliable for back pain

One of the most popular questions and concerns I get from clients is whether or not they need an MRI for their back or neck problem. When you have persistent pain that won’t go away, or shooting pain or numbness down your arm or leg, it’s scary. It makes sense to get a look inside with an MRI – right?

Not necessarily.

Here’s the problem. 

MRI’s are an amazing technological advancement that will literally show you everything that is going on in your spine.  But what we now know from research is that all those findings on an MRI rarely correlate with what’s actually causing your pain. One notable study was the Lancet series – three published papers that investigated how MRI findings related to the treatment of back pain.  Martin Underwood, MD, co-author of the Lancet series, and professor at Warwick Medical School, is quoted in The Guardian saying: “If you get into the business of treating disc degeneration because it has shown up on an MRI, the likelihood is that, in most of those people, it is not contributing to their back pain.”

Let me explain.

When it comes to neck and back problems, what most people don’t realize is that 70-80% of all spine and musculoskeletal problems are what we call “mechanical” in nature.  That means that your problem has to do with the way you move, bad postural habits learned over the years, or muscular and joint imbalances like weakness and poor flexibility. Many of these mechanical “wear and tear” problems don’t show up until your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s – which coincidentally is also the time that things like disc degeneration show up on an MRI. Disc degeneration and arthritis are normal parts of aging, but they often get blamed for problems they don’t actually cause. The best way to figure out a movement problem is with… well… movement! Not an MRI.

But how do you know that it’s a mechanical problem and not something more serious?

The easiest way to find out is to ask a physical therapist who specializes in the spine, and specifically in mechanical neck and back pain.  But one sign you can easily recognize on your own is to take note of how your pain behaves. Does your pain come and go? Do you have good days and bad days? Can you change positions and influence your pain? When your pain is variable, it’s the best sign that your neck or back problem is “mechanical” in nature and due to a movement dysfunction. And that also means you don’t need surgery or any kind of procedure to fix it! In fact, a procedure or surgery could leave you feeling worse off than before.

So what’s the big deal about getting an MRI?  Isn’t it good just to be extra-cautious?

In theory – yes.  But here’s what actually happens.  MRI’s are super powerful and amazing tools.  Because of this, they see everything – including normal age-related changes like I mentioned just a moment ago. They also pick up things like bulging discs.

Research has also shown that around 60-70% of the population walk around with bulging discs and have no symptoms. Why?

Because a bulging disc only gives you trouble if you are moving or positioning yourself in an unbalanced way.

If an MRI picks this up, the news is often more devastating than it needs to be and the typical advice is to get an injection or surgery.  Neither of these procedures will fix your movement problem. And what typically happens is the bulge comes back, or appears somewhere else. This is why being “extra-cautious”, and over-prescribing MRI’s when it comes to back and neck pain, is not a good idea. The outcome is usually that people end up dealing with invasive procedures and surgeries they didn’t even need.  

If you’ve had a bad accident, fall, or trauma – then an MRI is a good idea.  But if you are dealing with chronic, long-standing aches and pains that have come and gone over the years and have recently gotten worse – there is a 70-80% chance that it is a movement problem that has finally caught up to you.  It’s best to see a movement expert for this. We know how to tell if the issue is something more serious. We can also send you to a doctor right away if necessary. But when you automatically assume that you need an MRI first, you end up spending a lot of money (the average cost of an MRI is $150,000, and you have to pay a portion of this), and the likelihood of getting prescribed an unnecessary surgery or procedure is much higher.

If this story sounds all too familiar, or you’ve been told that you must get an MRI for your neck or back problem – feel free to reach out to us and we can help you sort through fact vs fiction.  You could also come to our next “Ask the PT Night” on October 23rd and ask your questions then!

5 Signs Your Core is Weak – And What You Should Do About It!

A strong, healthy core is important for our health and posture. When your core is strong and working properly, you will have less back pain, better posture, and will move with more ease and endurance.  But how do you know if your core strength is where it needs to be? I can tell you that chiseled abs, a thin waist, or the ability to do a hundred sit-ups are NOT reliable signs of a strong core.

Instead, here are five signs to know if your core is weak and what you can do about it:

1. Your Back Hurts

The most common side effect of a weak core is back pain, and yet most people still don’t consider core strengthening as a way to address those problems. Your core’s job is to support your spine and act as the center from which all movement stems. If those muscles are not properly conditioned – meaning, if they aren’t conditioned to engage when they are supposed to – your spine is at risk for being overworked, and muscular strain and tension are inevitable. The pain will most likely occur in your lower back, but can even occur in your neck, making simple tasks like bending, lifting, and walking totally miserable for you. Check out our free guide for getting rid of back pain and stiffness here.

2. You Have Poor Balance

This may not be an obvious one – but one of the main culprits of poor balance is a weak core!  Your core muscles help to stabilize your pelvis, and a stable pelvis allows you to have better balance.  If the muscles around your pelvis (particularly your hips and glutes) are weak, then your balance will undoubtedly be affected. This may not be an issue that you notice right away.  But next time you’re walking across an icy driveway, you’re going to wish that your balance was at 100%. We incorporate Pilates into our physical therapy practice because it is such an effective whole-body strengthening system that can really make a huge difference in core strength and balance. A strong, coordinated, and engaged core helps you to react to balance challenges more efficiently, and may prevent that next fall!

3. You slouch all the time

Most people struggle to maintain good posture when they have a weak core. It becomes so easy to slouch, and you may not even realize you’re doing it.  Observe your posture right now… Are your shoulders rolled forward? Is your low back missing its natural curve? Is your head poked forward? When you go to correct your posture, does it feel difficult or tiresome to maintain? If so, your core might need some endurance-training!  A lot of people will argue that core strength has nothing to do with your posture. But here’s the thing, a strong core makes it easier and more natural to have good posture, and when better posture becomes effortless, it starts to become your norm. Your whole body – especially your spine – will thank you.

4. Your feet and wrists hurt

Many of our clients come to see us with an initial complaint of foot pain (also known as plantar fasciitis) or wrist pain. It keeps coming back no matter how many times they get rid of it or go to physical therapy. Sound familiar? When you have a weak core, and lack the proper central support and stability you need, your outer muscles and joints will eventually suffer. We already talked about balance. If your core isn’t working to help you stay more stable, your feet will have to work harder, resulting in overtaxing of the tissue on the bottom of your foot. If your middle back can’t support you when you’re pushing or pulling, your wrists will take the brunt and this can result in stiffness or pain over time. If you’ve got any chronic problem that isn’t getting resolved over time, something is missing. In the case of your wrists and feet – it may be a sign of a weak core!

5. You’re always holding your breath 

If you’re always being reminded to breathe when you move or exercise, this is another sign that your core is weak and not working properly. You’ve heard me talk about this before, but your deep core is made up, in part, of your diaphragm, which is your main breathing muscle.  When your core lacks stability, or in most cases, doesn’t know how to engage in the right way to give you the stability it needs, your diaphragm will contract to compensate. One of the most tell-tale signs that this is happening is that you always hold your breathe during exercise. This is probably one of the most overlooked signs of a weak core, and one of the most difficult to correct! It’s why we’ve dedicated an entire module to this topic in our Pilates 101: Get [Your] Back to Health program, and it’s one of the most important things we work on with every single client as we prepare them to confidently return to exercise.

If any of these signs seem familiar to you, then you might want to start paying more attention to strengthening your core! But don’t just start doing sit-ups or planks haphazardly and expect good core strength to follow. Being able to do sit-ups and planks are the RESULT of good core strength. You must first learn how to strengthen your core properly.

If you’re local to Portsmouth, NH and want to talk to one of our specialists about better and safer ways to strengthen your core – click right here. It’s free!