When it comes to living active and injury-free, “your 20s are pretty good years,” says Tim Varughese, physical therapist and manager of clinical services at OhioHealth McConnell Heart Health Center. “You’re not a teenager, so you’re not engaging in regular full-contact sports like you did in high school. Your body is still pliable, you recover quickly from activity, your circulation is good, and you haven’t experienced age-related deterioration. From an orthopedic perspective, it’s the golden time.”
That isn’t to say that you’ll skate through the decade pain-free. In fact, you won’t be skating at all if you get one of the most common injuries twentysomethings encounter: Knee injuries.
Varughese says there are several ways you can hurt your knees, but there are precautions you can take today to set yourself up for a lifetime of good health. We spoke with him as part of our continuing series on staying active and avoiding injury, decade by decade.
“Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to avoid knee injuries like ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or meniscus tears that result from accidental contact,” says Varughese. “These would be things like taking a slide tackle during a weekend soccer game, or landing on another player after grabbing a rebound or spiking a volleyball.” But he says you can’t let fear of injury keep you from living an active life. “Don’t stop! Activity comes with risk. Do the things that bring you enjoyment, just know they carry some risk.”
“The knee is designed to open and close like a hinge. It’s the sideways movements and twists that cause injury,” says Varughese. He says these examples of non-contact injuries are the most common cause of knee injuries in young adults.
But the source of the problem might surprise you. “Most of these injuries are actually caused by hip weakness,” says Varughese. Our hips are responsible for placing our legs in the proper position for the knee to deliver the power we expect when we drive our bodies forward or change direction. “If you don’t have a strong and stable hip, your knee is subject to forces it was not designed to manage, and that causes problems.”
He goes on to say a lack of core strength can also undermine your knee’s ability to absorb shocks. “If your core is weak and you come down from a rebound on a straight leg, your trunk weight can shift too far from your midline, and that can cause your knee to buckle.”
Varughese says you can reduce your risk for knee injuries by strengthening your hips and core with exercises like squats, lunges, step-ups and farmer’s carry.
Even if your knee is working as it should, overuse can cause inflammation that leads to injury. “We see injuries like IT (iliotibial) band syndrome and tendonitis resulting from high-volume, endurance-level activities like long-distance running and cycling,” says Varughese.
Just like with non-contact injuries, hip and core strength exercises can help correct alignment issues that lead to inflammation. Varughese also recommends stretching your quads and hamstrings before and after warming up and cooling down.
Injury care and prevention
Varughese says if you injure your knee, immediately ice it to control swelling. Unless you’re in severe pain, you can take some time to see if the swelling and discomfort subside. If the swelling continues to worsen, or you can’t bear weight on your injured leg, go see your primary care doctor. If the swelling is minimal and you can bear weight, wait a few days to see if the discomfort goes away.
“I would also re-emphasize adding hip and core strength exercises to your workout routine,” says Varughese. “People in their 20s are starting their careers and may find themselves sitting a lot more than they used to. You can begin losing hip and core strength without even realizing it. Then the weekend comes and you push yourself to an activity level you haven’t been sustaining, and that’s when injuries can happen. Putting some effort into hip stability and core strength will help you avoid knee injuries and even lower back pain as you age.”
If you’re having pain, OhioHealth sports medicine physicians and physical therapists can help pinpoint your issues and get you on a plan to better health. Browse the wellness services at McConnell Heart Health Center or talk with your primary care doctor about starting a fitness plan.