Friday, May 31, 2013

Another Reason to Think Twice About Surgery

Operations to repair a torn meniscus are fairly common. I once thought this was one of those instances where surgery was appropriate. How else would this rubbery disk in the knee joint, only a small part of which receives a flow of blood, get better?

But maybe I was wrong.

If you’re older, and have a meniscus tear, it appears that you’ll do just as well skipping surgery and focusing on physical therapy instead. That’s according to a Brigham and Women’s Hospital study, the results of which were published a few months ago in the New England Journal of Medicine.

351 patients, aged 45 and older, who had a torn meniscus and arthritis as well were randomly assigned either to surgery or six weeks of physical therapy (those whose treatment consisted of physical therapy were allowed to have surgery if their bad knee didn’t improve; 30 percent opted to do so before the end of the one-year study).

The patients who didn’t have surgery fared as well as those who did. They had a similar level of pain relief and improvement in function. (Note: It’s important to point out that chances are good they had less severe meniscus tears that were more likely to heal without intervention.)

There’s still a role for surgeons, notes Dr. Jeffrey Katz, who led the study and was quoted in this Boston Globe summary of the results.
Immediate surgery may ... be more appropriate for younger folks who get a torn meniscus from an injury rather than from arthritis and aging, according to Katz, since previous research suggests these sudden tears often require surgery to fix and take longer to heal on their own. People in their 20s and 30s also recuperate more quickly from the procedure than those over age 65.
Even so, it’s nice to know that studies are confirming what a lot of us already suspect: that for a lot of knee problems, surgery shouldn’t be considered the first option, but rather the last.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

What I Like About ‘Taking Smaller Steps’

Have you ever seen a sand mandala?

They’re beautiful. Tibetan monks painstakingly arrange grains of brightly colored sand in striking patterns to create them. (And then, finally, they are swept away -- so there’s always a larger, humbling message about our impermanence in a permanent universe.)

When you stand before one, the feeling must be one of awe.

Last week I wrote about “Runners Knee Cured,” an interesting and entertaining success story. The punchline was that, after taking pain pills and stretching and icing and getting bad (and conflicting) advice from doctors and trying half a dozen other things, the author fixed the problem himself.

The two-word solution, embarrassing in its simplicity:

Smaller steps (while running).

This week I decided to write about what I like so much about “smaller steps.” The first part of the appeal is really on a figurative level. Saving bad knees, like creating a mandala from nothing more than bowls full of dyed sand, requires enormous patience and great attention to detail. And, like putting together a mandala, it requires “going small.”

Metaphorically, for one, you must take smaller steps.

I found it very comforting when I concluded that fixing my knees would take many months, or even years. Why? Because I could get off the crazy up-and-down merry-go-round of hope and despair, where one week I felt a bit better and thought I was making progress, then the next I felt worse and a lost, hopeless feeling returned.

Adjusting to a long timeframe for healing is what I call “getting on cartilage time.” Getting better will demand extraordinary patience, as you slowly push your knees harder. If you walked two miles a day this month, next month maybe you increase that to three. Or maybe only to two and a half.

So the advice “take smaller steps” has a figurative appeal to me.

But I also rather like it as a literal prescription. Take smaller, easier steps. Reduce the impact on your joints. Nothing wrong with that!

I recall the many months I spent working toward my recovery. I did take smaller, slower steps. I knew I was injured and had to heal, but the process couldn’t be rushed. I knew that I needed to move my joints, but at the same time I tried to reduce the forces being transmitted through them.

You should have seen me walk downhill. It was like there was an egg between the bones in my knee joint that I was in fear of breaking. That’s not because of any sensations of pain; rather I knew that walking downhill posed special risks because it’s easy to let your legs slam forward, step by step, propelled by gravity. I actively resisted that tendency.

And I’m sure I was taking smaller steps while doing so.

So this part of his story really resonated for me. I like the simplicity of the message, and the advice works on multiple levels.

Note: Commenters have noted that the author of "Runners Knee Cured" actually had his knee pain return. If so, I think there's a good message of caution in the coda to his tale: Healing painful knees is very, very slow and be careful of declaring victory prematurely.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Quick Note About Comment Spam

I've been getting a lot of comment spam lately.

Comment spammers are kind of like parasitical worms. Instead of building a website themselves, they try to leech off someone else's hard work.

Again: I don't mind if you post a comment vehemently disagreeing with me (just try to be civil). I don't mind if you link to something that's relevant to the topic, or talk about something (a product, book, lifestyle change, whatever) that helped you beat knee pain.

What I object to are empty comments that are designed purely for advertising such as:

Really fantastic post. I couldn't agree more. Check out my blog/website at

So I encourage everyone never to follow a spammer link. I'm scrubbing them off the blog's comment section as fast as I can. However, I think the only way to kill these pests may be to change how I handle comments. I may try to erect a "low fence" to keep parasites out, but not be too bothersome to the people who actually have bad knees and who have worthwhile things to say.

Update: I have just enabled "word verification" on comments. Shouldn't slow real people down more than a couple of seconds and (hopefully) will drive away the spambots. Let me know how it works!

Friday, May 17, 2013

How One Runner Found Knee Pain Relief

As readers of this blog know, I like to share success stories.

A rather interesting, somewhat humorous one came to my attention not long ago. In the comments section of a recent post, Ron Wiltse provided a link to “Runner’s Knee Cured.” The author recounts in an entertaining, visual fashion everything that failed to fix his runner’s knee -- before he finally found a two-word solution to his troubles.

What are those two words? To heighten suspense, the solution isn’t immediately revealed. First comes a staggering list of everything that didn’t work.

If you’ve battled chronic knee pain, this will be a depressingly familiar list. It includes stretching (which led to more intense pain), shoes to correct over-pronation (more pain), physical therapy that emphasized leg strengthening and stretching (yet more pain), ice bags (resulting in cold knees presumably with underlying pain).

The failures also included ibuprofen, custom-made orthotics and a $4,000 treadmill with “SOFT” suspension. And he had a close call with “lateral release” surgery (the operation was to correct a supposed “Q angle” problem that led to a mistracking kneecap -- or two bogus issues -- but he got impatient in the surgeon’s waiting room and left. Smart move, as I think the number of unhappy lateral release patients is fairly high).

Okay, no more suspense. So what worked?

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read “Runner’s Knee Cured” and wish to, please do so now, because I’m about to reveal the happy conclusion.

This is what cured his years-long ordeal with knee pain:

Taking smaller steps while running.

This, he claims, is why it worked:

He stopped landing heels first when he ran.

So what do I think about (a) his analysis of the problem and (b) his solution?

One I rather like, the other not so much.

This week I’ll tell you what I don’t like so much, and why. Basically, it’s the implication that runners who heel strike are guilty of bad form while forefoot striking is the proper technique.

Let me preface the following with an admission: I haven’t looked much into this matter of “How is the foot supposed to land during the act of running?” But I did come across a thoughtful 2008 essay on the topic on The Science of Sport website (I like the skeptical, fact-based way that authors Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas think), as well as a nice summary piece by Gretchen Reynolds on a New York Times blog just a few months ago (“Is There One Right Way to Run?”). The following is mainly based on those sources.

Now, if you believe that landing forefoot first is the “correct” way to run, you probably believe one or more of the following:

Most good runners run this way.

Running this way makes you faster.

Running this way best approximates how our barefoot ancestors ran (in other words, all this “heel striking” can be blamed on the modern fat-cushioned running shoe).

Running this way reduces injuries.

But all these claims appear dubious.

Most good runners run this way.

Most elite runners are actually heel strikers. A study of Japanese runners in a half-marathon showed 74 percent were heel strikers (only 1 percent were forefoot strikers, and the rest landed on their midfoot). A study of more than 2,000 runners at a Milwaukee marathon found 94 percent struck the ground heel first.

Running this way makes you faster.

Remember our old friend “cause and effect”? Well, it may not be that running on the balls of your feet makes you faster, but rather that when you run faster, you naturally run on the balls of your feet! (Try it -- IF you don’t have knee pain! Run slowly, then pick up speed to a sprint, and notice how the landing position of your feet changes.)

Running this way best approximates how our barefoot ancestors ran.

You may believe this in part because of a Harvard study (published in 2010) of lifelong barefoot runners from Kenya. Almost all turned out to be forefoot strikers. But then a newer study came along of a different barefoot Kenyan tribe, the Daasanach. And most of them were heel strikers, with hardly any forefoot strikers.

(Curious note: why were members of the tribe that Harvard researchers studied mainly forefoot strikers? Well, during the experiment they averaged a sub-five-minute-mile! The Daasanach were considerably slower, at about 8 minutes a mile. This suggests that speed, indeed, tends to influence which part of the foot you land on.)

Running this way reduces injuries.

It’s not at all clear that changing running form reduces injuries, according to the New York Times piece. In a study published last October, heel strikers were asked to temporarily switch to forefoot striking. The change wasn’t exactly a success.
... they found that greater forces began moving through the runners’ lower backs; the pounding had migrated from the runners’ legs to their lumbar spines, and the volunteers reported that this new running form was quite uncomfortable.
Still, when it comes to injuries, you might argue that if you have a strong spine and weak knees, you’d rather have your spine taking more of the impact from running and your knees less. Also, shifting weight forward could help, if for no other reason, because you may stress your knee joint differently and take some pressure off the areas of cartilage and bone that ordinarily take a pounding.

All possible, true. What’s more, Ron says that moving to a forefoot strike helped his bad knees, so it could be useful for some people. I’m skeptical though that it represents the “right” way to run.

Next time: The part of the “Runner’s Knee Cured” message I liked.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

If Stretching Is Useless, Why Does It Feel So Good?

When it comes to stretching, I’m a skeptic about its purported benefits (see here, here and here for instance). I’m a huge fan of warming up before exercising. But stretching? Eh.

But, when you have knee pain, stretching your leg muscles often feels good. I was a bit of a “closet stretcher” myself during my recovery, long after I was convinced that stretching was a waste of time.


Because I was injured. When you’re injured, the hurt area feels tight and uncomfortable. It’s like your bad knee is smack dab at the center of an intense knot.

Partly that’s because of swelling in the joint, according to Doug Kelsey. A little swelling goes a long way. It inhibits muscle function, impairs movement, and leaves you eager to stretch everything from your IT band to hamstrings for relief.

I certainly did! Early on, my physical therapist prescribed quad stretches. My immediate reaction: “Wow! This is great. Why didn’t anyone tell me about these before?” But a stretched muscle eventually contracts and, sadly, I discovered that the window of relief from stretching began shrinking. (Note: In Paul Ingraham’s long essay on the subject, he notes that it has been shown to take at least 20 minutes of sustained stretching to actually improve range of motion. Try doing that every day for all the muscles you want to stretch, and you may find you need to switch to a part-time job just to get all your stretching in).

So, you must be thinking, I gave up stretching after learning all I did. Wrong! Occasionally, I still stretched during the later stages of my recovery. Again, it felt good. Plus, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking, “Hey, what if I’m wrong? At the very least, it can’t hurt.” (Which is true, I believe, for most stretches if you do them gently enough.)

Fast forward to today. My knees are fine. And I’m back to being the same old Richard as before my go-round with knee pain: a slender, fairly fit person with very little flexibility. (I’m almost the opposite of double-jointed, whatever that is.) And I never stretch.

Should you stretch? If it feels good and isn’t hurting your knees, and you want to, I see no reason why not to. Go for it! My sole reservation would be this: If you have only 30 minutes a day, say, for activities related to knee rehab, and you’re spending 10 of those minutes on an elaborate routine of stretching, I’d hit the rethink button (note: this isn’t the same as the reset button, but it’s close :)).

Between 10 minutes of stretching and 20 minutes of easy walking, and 0 minutes of stretching and 30 minutes of easy walking, I know which I’d choose, in a heartbeat. What about you?

Friday, May 3, 2013

How I Saved My Knees (in Dialogue Format)

From time to time, I like to talk to the impatient first-time visitor to this blog, who’s thinking, “Okay, you saved your knees. Great. So just cut to the chase and tell me: What did you do?”

Below, I’m going to make another attempt to answer that, using a different approach: a make-believe dialogue between me and a slightly grumpy reader who has just read my book.

Because, unfortunately, a number of people have finished it without being able to figure out how I got better. I’ll take the blame for my unclear writing (but, believe me, I wasn’t trying to be mysterious).

Okay, here’s the imaginary exchange:

Reader: Okay, your frustrations with doctors and physical therapists in the book were interesting. But I reached the end and felt kind of cheated. Exactly how did you beat your knee pain? There aren’t a lot of details on what you did.

Me: Sorry! I thought I made clear what I did. But maybe not. Part of the problem, it wasn’t too exciting.

Reader: So what did you do?

Me: Basically, I walked a lot.

Reader: That’s it? Jeez, that’s a letdown. So I just need to go out and walk a lot and my knees will get better?

Me: Nope. Part of my message is that what worked for me may not work for you. But it is important to find a high-repetition, joint-friendly activity that your knees like. For me that was walking.

Reader: I don’t mean to be captious, but you could’ve written a much shorter book saying that.

Me: True, but the message isn’t simply to walk a lot. As I recount in the book, at first I tried walking a lot when I was allowed to work half-time in Hong Kong. And it didn’t help. My knees got worse!

Reader: Because you walked too much.

Me: Right. So there’s a delicate balance. That’s part of what makes healing so tricky. Especially if your knees are really bad, because the balance is even more delicate, and you can’t even do the ordinary things (like walking up a couple of flights of stairs) that most of us take for granted, without suffering pain and setbacks.

Reader: But again, your secret to how you saved your knees is by walking a lot.

Me: Well, yes and no. If that was my entire experience -- I had bad knees, I decided I would walk a lot, and my knees got better -- I never would have bothered writing a book. I also spent a lot of time studying how knees worked and why the traditional methods to treat knee pain failed me (and probably fail many others). That’s an important part of the story.

Reader: Okay, but I’m interested in solutions for my bad knees. And you’re saying that if my knees like walking, I can go out and walk a lot and my knees will improve.

Me: Again, not quite. You have to walk the right amount -- not too much, not too little. And, periodically, you have to increase that amount of activity -- you have to push your knees harder -- and gradually strengthen them so the joints can tolerate more.

Reader: And that’s it?

Me: Actually, at some point, you’ll be able to graduate to “sweating” activity -- such as walking uphill, hard. This will be a great advance and will hasten the healing of the soft tissues in your joints -- at least that was my experience.

Reader: But again, that’s all you did -- walking?

Me: There were other exercises, more typical of “muscle strengthening”. But honestly, they constituted a small part of my program, and I don’t think they did much for my knees, so I didn’t spend time in the book on them.

Reader: Were there other things that you think were important?

Me: I also consumed high-protein drinks, to make sure that my injured tissues had the basic ingredients they needed to mend. I made sure I got enough sleep. And I learned to listen to my knees, on a really deep level.

Reader: Okay then. So what should I do?

Me: I don’t like giving advice. But I’d look for a good physical therapist who believes the right things about healing bad joints (that they indeed can heal, and that patients should be doing exercises that are more joint focused, as opposed to muscle focused). Then, from that, I think good things will follow. Good luck!