Osteoarthritis (OA) — a degenerative joint disease — is one of the five leading causes of disability among older women and men and is the most common type of arthritis. OA is characterized by a breakdown of cartilage in any joint in the body, although it’s most frequently seen in weight-bearing joints such as the spine, hips, and knees. Symptoms of this “wear and tear” condition include sore joints, pain after increased activity or extended periods of inactivity, joint deformity, and fluid accumulation.
It’s estimated that one out of two Americans will develop knee OA over the course of their life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women are at greater risk than men. Other people at risk include overweight individuals, people with a history of trauma to the knee, or those whose jobs require heavy kneeling or squatting.
While treatment — including physical therapy, weight loss, pain-relieving drugs, anti-inflammatory injections, and surgery — is tailored to each patient, experts agree that stretching is an important part of any OA treatment plan. Stretching can help improve knee function, increase range of motion, and relieve discomfort.
So grab a mat and a towel or strap and read on for four easy knee moves that can be done at the gym or in the comfort of your own home.
Standing calf stretch
Stand facing a wall with your right leg in front of you and your left leg behind. Placing your hands on the wall for support, slowly bend your right front knee and lean into the wall, pressing the left heel to the floor. Once you feel a stretch in your left calf muscle, hold for 30 seconds, and then slowly relax. Repeat the stretch twice more before switching sides and repeating.
Bonus: A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that knee OA patients who performed standing calf stretches as part of an overall exercise routine experienced improved function and reported less pain and stiffness than those who did not.
Seated hip march
Sitting up straight in a chair, slightly kick your left foot back a few inches underneath the chair, keeping toes on the floor for support. Lift your right foot off the floor, keeping your knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Hold your right leg in the air for five seconds, and then slowly lower it back to the ground. Repeat 10 times. Alternate to the left leg and repeat 10 times.
Bonus: A University of Iowa study found that stronger thigh muscles can protect women against knee OA symptoms.
Lying face down, bend your right knee and grab your ankle with your right hand. (You may want to rest your forehead on your left forearm for support.) Gently pull your right foot towards your buttocks until you feel a gentle stretch in the thigh. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds before slowly lowering your leg. Repeat two more times (for a total of three times), switch sides, and repeat.
Bonus: A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that patients with OA of the knee who performed this exercise as part of an overall routine experienced improved function and reported less pain and stiffness than those who did not.
Lie down on your back with both knees bent. Loop a towel or strap around your right foot and, holding on to the strap for support, extend and elevate your right leg to a 45-degree angle. Once you feel a gentle stretch in your right hamstring (behind the knee and thigh), hold for 30 seconds. Slowly lower and repeat two more times, switch sides, and repeat.
Bonus: A 2010 study in the journal Physiotherapy found that hamstring stretching led to significant increases in knee extension range of motion in subjects with knee osteoarthritis.
When doing these exercises, go at your own pace. If you experience pain, stop and make sure to talk to your doctor during your next visit to see what they recommend.