Old or young, knee injuries strike all

Active 40-somethings are no more of a risk than teen-agers

By Donny Henn

It's an indisputable medical fact: Nothing sidelines an athletic-minded nation like knee injuries.

More than 4.1 million Americans each year seek medical attention for a knee problem, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.


It seems reasonable to suspect that the risk of knee injury increases with age, but Dr. Jay Smith, a physician at Mayo Sports Medicine, said that isn't necessarily so. Active 40-somethings are evidently no more prone to knee injuries than teen-agers.

"It is very variable; I don't think there's anything inherently negative that happens to a knee at (age) 40," said Smith.

"I think that certainly with age the cartilage becomes less tolerant of stress and strain. But we don't see a lot of 45-year-olds playing out their knees."

The variable is what shape the rest of the 40-year-old body is in, Smith said. The knee, a complex structure of bones, cartilage, muscles, tendons and ligaments, is often the first body part to protest after a prolonged period of inactivity.

"A lot of knee injuries that we see are because people have become 'de-conditioned'," he said.

"We see a fair amount of patellofemoral pain, or pain around the kneecap, and we have seen some ligament injuries, and some meniscus tears."

Although Smith said there isn't evidence to support that older athletes suffer a higher percentage of knee injuries than younger athletes, the recovery time following an injury or surgery is usually longer.

Smith calls it a consequence of middle age. Rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee can take months. Recovery will be easier if the rest of the body is strong.


"You can't build a good house on a weak foundation; it's the same with your body," he said. "Once your frame has taken a hit you need to have good muscle control to come back from it."

Smith said that many people who suffer from knee pain can treat themselves before they call on a doctor.

"The most sensible thing to do if you experience knee pain is to just back off on training or activities," he said. "Ice it, and let it cool down for a few days. Many times knee injuries that we see are nothing more than soreness."

However there are some telltale signs that warrant medical attention.

"If the knee is buckling, or there's swelling, or there's an inability to move the knee through its full range of motion, then it's best to have it looked at," Dr. Smith said.

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