Joe asked himself that question every time he stood at the bottom of the steps and looked up at the landing. The stairs had become a physical endurance test. Each step caused searing pain in his knees no matter how slowly or carefully he climbed. The pain, which started in his right knee, now affected his left. Most of the time, Joe avoided the stairs by sleeping on the couch in the den and storing his clothes in the desk drawers. But, today he needed his suit from the bedroom closet.
Has knee pain ever caused you or a loved one to avoid activities?
It may be due to damaged cartilage in your knee. The clinical name for the condition is chondromalacia patellae, also known as Runner’s Knee.
Why does your knee hurt when you climb the stairs?
To answer that question, let’s review the mechanics of knee movement.
Your knee joins three major bones: your thigh bone (femur), your shin bone (tibia), and your kneecap (patella). All three bones along with their associated ligaments and muscles must work in unison to support your weight and allow fluid leg movement.
With each bend, the patella, a free-floating bone, slides over the femur in the trochlear groove. The articular cartilage keeps your kneecap in position as it cushions and lubricates the joint, so the bones glide against one another.
Damaged cartilage may not cause pain when you walk. But as running, deep knee bends, squats or climbing stairs subjects the knee to additional stress, the pain increases. These types of motions force the kneecap to slide up and down. Worn cartilage cannot keep the kneecap in the groove when the knee is under pressure. As the kneecap slips out of position, it causes pain.
How is knee cartilage damaged?
Knee cartilage fails for many reasons. Accidents, injury, genetic deformities, overuse, and age are five common reasons for chondromalacia.
Fractured bones or lacerated muscles can cause an imbalance of strength in the leg and pull the kneecap to one side of the groove or another. The added stress can cause misalignment and pain.
Overuse injuries cause damage to the cartilage, especially in young athletes. Growing bones and excessive stress create a recipe for a chronic condition. If young athletes complain of knee pain at practice or during a competition, they should stop playing. Prolonged knee pain after activity indicates a more serious condition than normal muscle soreness from a strenuous workout. If you experience knee pain after practice or a game that does not diminish in 72 hours, you may need medical attention. Call your primary care provider, sports medicine physician or an orthopedic specialist.
Genetic deformities and age are risk factors you cannot change, but you there are some things you can do to avoid damaging the cartilage.
Can you prevent Runner’s Knee or chondromalacia?
The best way to avoid chondromalacia is to maintain the correct alignment of the kneecap and minimize wear and tear of the cartilage.
The first step is developing strong and balanced leg muscles above and below the knee. These muscles support and stabilize the patella to keep it in the trochlear groove.
If your goal is to you strengthen your leg muscles, take care. The muscles at the front of the leg act in opposition against the hamstrings to bend and straighten the knee. As one muscle contracts or gets shorter, the other muscle lengthens. An imbalance of strength can pull the kneecap out of position.
Stay in the groove to avoid knee pain when climbing the stairs.
Similar to other activities, proper form is necessary when climbing stairs, especially if your knees are tender. But, as we were learning to climb stairs as children, our parents were more focused on preventing falls than teaching us the proper stair-climbing technique.
If climbing stairs causes pain, assess your posture and the alignment of your feet and legs. Here are three tips to remember.
- Align your knee over your second toe.
- Don’t lead with your foot, lead with your body. Bend your torso forward to redistribute the force of your weight from the knee to the hamstrings at the back of the thigh.
- Place the heel of your foot on the step before you step up.
Repeat the steps for each stair you climb.
If your knee pain increases or lasts for more than two weeks, it’s time to contact your orthopedic specialist. Continuing to walk on a sore knee can cause significant internal damage to the tendons and ligaments inside your knee.