Going “weak in the knees”—that is, having your knees give way when you put weight on them—is a sign of knee instability. Knee buckling increases the risk of falling, and it’s particularly common in older people who have weak leg muscles (particularly the quadriceps, on the front of the thighs), poor balance, or chronic knee problems(from osteoarthritis, for example). It’s a warning sign that shouldn’t be ignored, as noted in a NIH-sponsored study published in Arthritis Care & Research in August.
Researchers interviewed 1,842 people, ages 55 to 84, who had knee osteoarthritis or were at high risk for it and found that 17 percent had experienced knee buckling (with or without falling) during the past three months. Interviews two years later revealed that these participants were two to four times more likely to have fallen during the previous year, compared to who hadn’t experienced prior buckling. (Falls resulting from being knocked down by a person or vehicle, falling off of a bicycle or while playing a sport, or falling from a height, like off a ladder, were not included.)
Of major concern, about two-thirds of these participants who fell reported that they lost confidence in their balance and feared falling again, so much so that they limited their activities. But that only leads to further loss of muscle strength and overall conditioning, which can in turn lead to greater loss of mobility, isolation, dependence on others, and possibly depression.
Speak up before you fall down
Such consequences, say the researchers, can often be prevented in people whose buckling knees are caused by muscle weakness or poor balance if they undertake quadriceps-strengthening exercises and balance and agility training.
If you have experienced knee instability or buckling, tell your health care provider. Patients often don’t bring this up. Your health care provider can advise some basic exercises or refer you to a physical therapist. If you are overweight, this is an added incentive to lose some extra pounds, which put added strain on your knees. Discuss other fall-prevention measures, such as wearing slip-resistant shoes and using a cane, if necessary.
A typical exercise program should include
- Range-of-motion exercises to keep your joints and muscles flexible.
- Strengthening exercises, especially ones that target your quadriceps, such as walking up hills or stairs.
- Balance and agility exercisessuch as yoga or tai chi.
- Aerobic exercise that’s easy on the joints, such as swimming, walking, or bicycling, to keep your heart and lungs healthy and control your weight.
This article was adapted from Health After 50.
Also see Best Pain Relief for Knee Arthritis.