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Age related knee pain, or just a sore knee?

by Physio Thomas

A patient came in today for his standard Clinical Rehab class. This patient had always had knee pain – his GP scans showed significant bone loss due to osteoarthritis, and his right knee was so constantly bad that he was awaiting surgery. Knee pain was now just part of his life, and was one of the dreadful parts of getting old. 

Today, along with his typical right-sided knee pain, he was presenting with a sharp pain on his left knee too. It was in the same spot as his right-sided, severely osteoarthritic knee, so he just thought that this left side was now degenerating as rapidly. Makes sense, right? Same spot on both knees, the scans showed both knees were degrading, and osteoarthritis can affect more than one joint. 

Now, while we could have left it there, I did what all physiotherapists love to do and kept prodding for more information. I found out that the pain was very sharp, that even the slightest grazing of his knee would make him jump. I also found out that the pain wasn’t usually the worst in the morning, but when he was moving.

These key bits of information gave me the idea to do some manual therapy on the patient’s left lower back, and his knee pain suddenly reduced from a 9/10 to a 2/10.

So, why am I telling you this? Is it to profess that my magical hands cure knee osteoarthritis, or to boast that physios are always right, while GPs and patients are wrong?

No, it’s to try broaden your mind beyond the shackles of age-related pain.

As we get older, we tend to experience more pain. We have less lubrication in our joints, our muscles become less strong, and we have a lifetime of wear and tear to slow us down. So, age-related pain is a genuine issue, and it can be a major limiting factor in exercising, playing with our grandchildren, or having the best quality of life.

However, it’s not the only pain we feel when we get older. If you were sitting at a desk all day, and your neck was sore, would that be age-related pain? No, that would be postural tightness that anyone would feel, young or old. If you worked really hard in a brand new exercise class, and were sore for days, would that be age-related pain? No, anyone would feel that stiffness doing a new routine. Most extremely, if you had a finger cut off, would that pain be age-related? No, everyone, regardless of age, would be in agony.

My point is that, yes, you can feel age-related pain as you grow older, but you can also feel pain that anyone, regardless of age, would feel if they had postures, movements or injuries that would result in pain. As we get older, though, we just become more susceptible to it, or pain has become chronic after not dealing with it throughout a lifetime.

As such, it turns out that this specific patient had a very stiff left lower back from doing less exercise over Christmas, creating nerve irritation that  radiated to pain in his knee – the same symptoms that anyone, despite age or radiographic scans, would present with.

The reason why I am sharing this is because the association of these morning aches and pains to scans, to arthritis, to degenerated discs – to getting old, really – leads to the mentality that you have an incurable, unimprovable part of aging. That you’re getting old, so there’s nothing that can be done. That this is just who you are now. And that leads to a loss of independence and a progressive fear of moving.

My goal in this blog is to empower you to think beyond your age. I hear “it’s because I am old” quite a lot in my classes, and while, sure, maybe that’s true, but maybe you just have a stiff back and need some manual therapy? Maybe you have weak glutes and that is causing pain in your knees? Maybe you just need some exercises and guidance to reduce that shoulder pain?

This is why it’s important to see a physiotherapist, someone who specialises in movement, and who can look at the bigger picture, beyond the scans and diagnoses. Yes, this patient I saw had OA in his knees, but he also had a stiff lower back, both of which can result in knee pain – one of which is remarkably and easily treatable. As such, your physiotherapist will be able to determine just what is causing your issues, and create a plan with you to help you get back to moving well beyond your years.

Age-related pain exists, but not all pain is age-related. Imagine how much freer you can feel if you remove the chains of your age and consider that your pain can be managed and cured, just like anyone else’s.

If you need some help to get moving again, please come and see us.