The knee, the elbow’s cousin, used to be more like the elbow. But then we went from four legs to two, and everything changed.
The knee is now so complex and high profile that some researchers at the University of California at Davis – um, or maybe elsewhere – are pretty sure the knee has its own press agent. And just the other day on X, the elbow posted a photo of the knee with a quote from Guillermo del Toro: “The sign of a true friendship is when you can forgive success”.
My point – and I do have one – is this:
The knee doesn’t just bend and straighten. It also twists, and it even glides/rolls like a rocking chair on a skating rink. These additional movements are crucial, not just to bending and straightening the knee, but also to allowing your body to turn freely without wrenching your joints from tailbone to neck.
The knee is the main reason you can make quick changes of direction. Any athlete who is about to move has their knees bent. That’s because you can’t turn or quickly propel yourself if your knees aren’t bent. The propulsion comes from rapidly unbending the knees using the quads and other muscles. The turning comes from a rotational movement in the knees that happens passively when you use muscles elsewhere in your body.
Sharing the Work of Rotation
Don’t identify too much with a diagnosis and miss the reality that almost all injury is more of a movement problem than a structural one. A meniscus, for example, may be the source of pain, but it’s not the cause of pain. Even when you’ve been diagnosed (by a doctor, friend, or internet search) with a specific injury, look at movement in the spot and elsewhere if you really want to understand the problem and the solution.
Pretend to hear and respond to a loud noise behind you and pay attention to what actually turns. Spoiler alert: Most turning happens in your lower ribs and your knees. People with restricted ribcages put a lot more stress on their knees and vice versa.
A knee problem may have originated with upper body – ribcage – immobility, which overtaxed the rotational ability of the knee. And if your knees are healing, you can take stress off them by helping your spine, and especially your lower ribs, to rotate. You can do that easily by lying on your back with feet flat and knees up and alternating dropping your knees to each side.
Healthy ankle and foot movement is also important to knee health because If the ankle can’t move, the knee has to compensate. Turning when your foot/ankle is fixed (as in a sneaker on a gym floor) or moving on an ungrounded foot (as when you’re pole dancing and you step down onto your 6-inch pump while twisting and sliding with speed) are experiences we’ve all had that are very stressful for the knee because if it is bent, it absorbs all that motion passively.
The hips also contribute to knee health. When one hip is restricted, the opposite side knee takes a lot of stress because of balance and weight-bearing changes that affect your gait. I used to say that youth = spinal twist, and my colleague Joan Arnold used to correct me, saying youth = hip joint mobility. Turned out she was right, but both things are crucial for knee health (and youthfulness).
Mobilize your own knees
The knee is often restricted in rotation, and that puts strain on the meniscus and the ACL, structures so terrifying that the mere mention of them makes powerful men cry (and powerful women wince slightly, then get on with whatever they were doing).
As you may know, the leg bone is connected to the hip bone. The joints above and below a problem joint are always affected or implicated in injury and dysfunction. Problems in a hip often spread to the other knee, and vice versa. Take care of one set of joints to help the other.
With a few simple home exercise/stretching, you can also help restore rotation and glide to the knee yourself, and in the process, also get the feet, ankles, and hips moving.