Spending time in the great outdoors can benefit both your mental and physical well-being. But if hiking is your passion, you may be familiar with the toll it can have on your body.
Knee pain after hiking downhill is a common ailment for hikers that can prevent them from spending time on the trail. The good news is that knee pain after hiking can be treated and there are steps you can take to avoid it from occurring in the future.
Causes of Knee Pain While Hiking
According to Harvard Medical School, when a hiker walks on level ground, they are putting force on their knee joints at about 1.5 times their body weight. At an incline, the pressure is almost two to three times their body weight!
This added strain can lead to minor or extreme pain on your knees. Here are some of the most common causes of knee pain experienced on the trail or after hiking:
Bursitis occurs when the fluid-filled sacs that cushion the bones, tendons, and muscles near the knee become inflamed. Repetitive motion while hiking can lead to bursitis, which is often felt as achiness or stiffness in the knee. The knee may hurt more during motion or when you press on it and it may appear red and swollen.
Tendinitis in the knee, called patellar tendinitis, is an injury of the tendon that connects the kneecap to your shinbone. Patellar tendinitis is often called “jumper’s knee,” and is frequently experienced by hikers who traverse rough, uneven, and rocky terrain.
Knee tendinitis is felt as pain between the kneecap and shin bone right at the start of the hike and immediately after finishing. Eventually, the pain will worsen and be felt throughout the hike.
A torn meniscus is one of the most commonly encountered hiking knee injuries. You can tear your meniscus on intense hikes during which you forcefully twist or rotate your knee, especially when putting your full weight on it. This is often experienced by hikers who are jumping from rock to rock, especially when going downhill.
Meniscus tears may make it difficult to fully extend your knee and will cause pain, swelling, and stiffness. These symptoms may take a day to develop after the injury occurs and you might also feel a popping sensation or like your knee is giving away during physical activity.
Iliotibial Band Syndrome
Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) occurs when the tendon on the outside of your leg that goes from the top of your pelvic bone down to your knee becomes swollen. Frequent hiking can make you more prone to ITBS and trail running increases your risk of developing this condition.
Feeling a pop, click, or snap on the outside of your knee could be a sign that you’ve developed ITBS. Your knee can appear red and feel warm to the touch, especially on the outside of the knee.
Osteoarthritis of the knee occurs when the cartilage cushion between joints wears away. This causes the bones of the knee to rub against each other and absorb shock less efficiently. Knee osteoarthritis occurs most commonly in people over the age of 45, but it can occur in younger people too.
Poor Hiking Techniques
Poor hiking techniques, especially when descending a trail, can increase the risk of developing a knee injury or condition.
Preventing Knee Pain When Hiking
You can take several steps to prevent knee pain from developing or recurring when hiking. It’s important to maintain proper form while on the trail, especially during a steep descent. Hikers should lean forward instead of back to maintain a center of gravity that is low and over their legs.
Here are other steps to take to prevent knee pain when hiking:
Properly Prepare Your Gear
Wear hiking footwear that is not worn out and has properly tied shoelaces (i.e. tight enough that they feel secure, but aren’t restricting blood flow). Packs shouldn’t be too heavy and you should tighten your hip belt and shoulder straps to minimize pack movement while hiking.
Use Trekking Poles
Trekking poles should be lengthened correctly so you are not disrupting your center of gravity.
Stretch for Warm Up and Cool Down
Stretches and exercises that warm up and cool down the muscles surrounding your knee will help prevent overextension and strain.
Drink Lots of Water
Staying hydrated is important for maintaining lubrication around the knee joint.
Treating Knee Pain When Hiking
It’s time to consider treating knee pain after hiking downhill when taking preventative steps isn’t enough. The following treatments can help make time spent on the trail and recovery after hiking more pleasant:
- OTC pain medications
- Icing the knee
- Physical therapy
- Strengthening exercises
When to Seek Medical Help for Knee Pain from Hiking?
When over-the-counter pain medications or icing stop being enough pain treatment, it may be time to consider something more intentional. Our providers use innovative pain management methods that pinpoint the source of your knee pain after hiking.
We offer a wide range of minimally-invasive procedures with a whole-person approach that is personalized for every patient.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I reduce the risk of knee pain while hiking?
You can reduce the risk of knee pain while hiking by using equipment correctly, maintaining proper form, and stretching before and after each hike.
What are the best exercises for preventing knee pain while hiking?
Exercises and physical therapy focused on strengthening the muscles around the knee will help in knee pain prevention.
What should I do if my knee pain from hiking doesn’t go away after resting?
If your knee pain persists after resting, it may be a sign of a more serious condition that requires specialized treatment. Physical therapy, OTC medications, and icing may help alleviate some knee pain. Other knee pain from hiking may require a pain management plan or procedure from a physician.
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