It used to be that doctors treated men and women exactly the same — the only known health difference was their reproductive systems. Doctors today know that women aren't just smaller versions of men. Even our knees are different, in fact.
Women are specially built
The build of our bodies can make women more susceptible to injuries to the ligaments that hold the knees together, chronic kneecap problems, and injuries to the cartilage that cushions the joint:
- A woman's pelvis is wider than a man's, creating a sharper angle where the bones in the knees meet. As a result, the front of the knee joint, the thighbone and the kneecap fit together poorly, and this misalignment can lead to injury and wear and tear on the joint.
- Women have looser ligaments than men.
- To stabilize their knees, women often rely on the quadriceps (the muscles in the front of the thighs) rather than the hamstrings behind, which leads to more anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in female athletes. This is a very serious injury that requires major surgery, with a relatively long recovery.
Estrogen plays a role
Along with alignment issues, estrogen levels are a reason that women experience knee osteoarthritis at nearly twice the rate as men. After age 45, about the time of menopause, osteoarthritis becomes much more common in women than men. Not surprisingly, knee replacement is also much more common in women than men.
Strengthening the knee
It's common that women make their knee problems worse by trying to strengthen the knee. Exercises to avoid include leg curls on a weight machine, deep knee bends, stair-climbing machines, and aerobics programs that use a very high step.
Tips specific to sports play
Women who bend their knees and play low to the ground have fewer knee injuries than women who run and pivot with stiff legs. To avoid knee trouble, women should:
- Keep bones strong: Eat nutritious food that includes enough calcium and vitamin D.
- Limit alcohol intake: Don't drink more than one alcoholic drink per day. Drinking more than this may mean a higher risk for weakening bones.
- Keep their weight in check: Extra pounds add extra stress to the knees. Every added pound adds four pounds of pressure to the kneecap when walking, 20 pounds of pressure when climbing stairs, and 25 pounds of pressure during aerobics class.
- Maintain good muscle balance: Work on strengthening the quadriceps and the hamstrings so they are equally developed. You can strengthen your hamstrings by doing hamstring curls on a weight machine or by jumping rope.
- Warm up to stretch the muscles around the knees: Don't exercise cold. Instead, start slowly to warm up the muscles, and stretch only after the muscles have been warmed up.
- Wear properly fitting shoes: Wear shoes that are made for the surface you are playing or running on, such as a track or tennis court. Replace athletic shoes every three months or after 500 miles of wear. Also make sure your shoes fit and have proper padding and support.
- Avoid undue stress on the knee: Avoid actions that cause the knee to twist, and don't lock your knees when lifting something heavy.
- Listen to your knees: If your knees hurt, don't ignore it because that could make the problem worse. See an orthopedic specialist to uncover the problem and find solutions.
Do your knees need help?
If you experience knee pain, or for more strategies on keeping your knees healthy, we're here to help.
To find a doctor or speak to a nurse, call Consult-A-Nurse® at (951) 788-3463, 24 hours a day.
For more information, visit Orthopedics & Joint Replacement.