That's how I succeeded in my recovery, which I describe in my just released book, Saving My Knees.
But what does it mean to "strengthen" a joint? In my case, I had to contend with bad cartilage. An MRI revealed I had "mild" chondromalacia (though I had not-so-mild pain symptoms, so I suspect that the problems lay deeper than the MRI could see). So my mission became to restore that cartilage to better health, to make it stronger. But how?
I began digging around in the world of articular knee cartilage. What constitutes weak or poorly functioning cartilage anyway? Obviously, if it's worn down or damaged structurally, the tissue won't work as well. But then I learned something curious: bad cartilage is generally too soft.
Now here's where things can get confusing. If you cruise the Net long enough, you'll find at least one instance of a doctor pooh-poohing the diagnosis of "chondromalacia," saying that the term makes no sense because it means "soft cartilage," and cartilage is supposed to be soft. That's a rather disingenuous thing to say though.
Because chondromalacia means an "abnormal softening of cartilage." Cartilage is somewhat soft because it must act as a rubbery shock absorber, compressing and then bouncing back to its original shape. Cartilage-as-a-brick wouldn't function too well; a brick has no ability to deform to absorb shock, then recover to its original state.
The issue arises with a kind of excessive and unhealthy softness that (at its extreme) is captured in this delightful bit of imagery from the book Heal Your Knees: "If a man in his eighties tears a meniscus, it wouldn't make sense to try to repair it, because that would be like trying to put stitches in a Boston cream pie."
You don't want Boston-cream-pie cartilage, certainly, that can't hold a stitch -- or bear the burden of a walk up a hill. To better understand why, consider this excerpt from Disorders of the Patellofemoral Joint, by John Pryor Fulkerson (my bold):
Closed chondromalacia is common and may or may not be symptomatic ... it consists of simple softening of articular cartilage, which begins in a very localized area and then extends progressively in all directions ... softening, which may at times appear fluctuant, may be present in varying degrees of severity, from simple softening to a more advanced form in which a type of "pitting edema" can be observed after digital or blunt instrument pressure. This loss of elasticity, which this softening represents, decreases the function capacity of cartilage and explains the reaction of adjacent subchondral bone to which the compression forces are transferred abnormally.There we go. That supplies the needed clarity. Soft = loss of elasticity. Loss of elasticity = not very good shock absorber. Since cartilage's key role is to lessen shocks/forces transmitted through the knee joint, too much softness means lots of problems. Plus there's this to consider: soft tissue is more prone to flaking, fraying and tearing. Flaking off bits of cartilage can be a source of pain, as they migrate through the synovial fluid to the nerve-rich synovium. And I hardly need to belabor the point that you really want to avoid tearing your cartilage.
So my calculus was simple: I didn't want to prematurely have Boston cream pie (or anything resembling it) in my joints. That meant I needed to strengthen and stiffen my knee cartilage (here I'm talking about indentation stiffness, and not brittle stiffness), through a long program of high-repetition "exercise" that gradually increased in intensity.
I knew that approach could work, from a Swedish study ("Positive Effects of Moderate Exercise on Glycosaminoglycan Content in Knee Cartilage"). Moderate physical activity boosted the content of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) in the cartilage of participating subjects. Having more GAGs in your cartilage is great; they contribute to making the tissue healthier and more resilient.
So for anyone trying to understand how I healed, that was one important, basic insight. I knew my cartilage was weak/damaged/soft. And I knew I had to make it stronger.
And I did, and by doing so, strengthened my knees.