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Why do I have knee pain? A personal story

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I have a personal anecdote for you this week. A long, long, time ago, I had some knee pain. It reared its ugly head after I went snow shoeing with some friends. At the time, I hadn’t really been snow shoeing in earnest – just a couple of short hikes – and so this particular day was by far the longest outing I had planned. About half way through, let’s say maybe 4 miles in, my right knee started to ache. Why do I have knee pain, I wondered?

It didn’t get better.

As we turned around to go back to the car the pain grew worse and worse. It got to the point where I was unable to effectively bend at the knee without significant pain. By the time I got back to the car, I was walking with my right leg more or less extended and swinging it out to the side to put it in front of me and take another step.

Reflecting on this experience, I would say that it was the first time I had an overuse injury. After the pain and soreness subsided enough that I could walk again, I went to a physical therapist and my primary care physician. The former, is a story all its own, but for the purposes of this blog post, let’s talk about what the doctor told me.

I explained to him the snow shoeing trip, my growing soreness in my knee, and the subsequent recovery time. And I asked him the very blunt question, “why do I have knee pain?”

Here’s what happened next:

He had me lay down on the examination table, feet together, and he lined both my legs up.

Now, it’s been years, so I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said, “Oh, here’s the problem, one of your legs is longer than the other.”

I was somewhat relieved and somewhat frustrated, by his diagnosis. One the one hand, I had my answer, didn’t I? I presumably knew the root cause of my pain. But on the other hand, I was pissed. Because now I would need to shim each and every one of my shoes, from now, until apparently the end of my days. It sounded awful.

Now, if you’ll allow me the benefit of pressing the fast forward button, here are the bullet points of what happened next in my journey of self-discovery:

  • I saw a physical therapist who saw no difference in the length of my legs
  • I worked with a rolfer (soft tissue expert) who also didn’t see any difference in the length of my legs

Basically, what was going on during that snow shoeing trip is that my hips were out of alignment. With both the hip and ankle joint being highly mobile (by design), my knee was stuck in the middle – therefore, any problems up or downstream were probably going to show up in the knee. And that’s exactly what happened.

My doctor was looking for an easy answer. When he found one, he went with it.

Am I advocating that you shouldn’t see your doctor? Absolutely not. If I had a clinical problem (i.e. cancer or joint degradation), then a physician can and should catch it. But when you start to look at the subtleties of human movement and function, things can get a bit complicated very fast. And without having a trained expert take a look at your facial lines and muscular tonicity, it can be very challenging, if not downright impossible, to diagnosis something like a misaligned hip joint.

For those of you that read my work regularly, you won’t be surprised to see another Gray Cook reference…

Mr. Cook, one of today’s most practical and gifted physical therapists and strength coaches, recently said “Do not cut what can be untied.” In other words, sometimes we immediately think that surgery is our only option for whatever musculoskeletal issue we are dealing with. But Gray cautions us to carefully and critically evaluate whether or not surgery is really the only option. Sometimes, you can “untie” your body versus trying to cut it.

If you tie your shoelaces too tight, what do you do? I don’t know about you, but I don’t immediately reach for the scissors every time or I wouldn’t be able to stock enough laces! Instead, you sit down, take your time, and untie them.

Whether we lift weights or sit on a bike saddle for 30 hours a week, our bodies have a tendency to get tight and hypertonic. This can cause problems downstream in a myriad of ways. Tight muscles (and you’ll notice that I use the word ‘tight’ and ‘hypertonic’ interchangeably) can cause dysfunction in fascial trains (lines of meridian) and induce misalignments throughout your body.

Consequently, taking a careful look at how your body moves and where tightness calls home, can facilitate an effective, low-impact, and practical solution.

Do not cut what can be untied – Gray Cook

Good advice, indeed.

Wrap up

So what does this mean to you? Well, that’s something you have to decide for yourself.

Again, I’m not (and never am) advocating that you skip a visit to your doctor. Instead, I’m advocating that you think critically about why and where your pain is coming from. Finding the root cause of pain that originates from your movement is often very difficult to diagnosis. Keeping an open mind about seeing other experts, be they soft tissue practitioners, physical therapists, or otherwise, may provide you with some unique insight into what’s going on.

Movement is tough. When things work, it’s wonderful. When things go a bit wrong, believe me, it can be frustrating to get healthy again. But hang in there. Pick up some books, meet some new experts, and think outside the box.

By Ryan Wagner

What’s your story? Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I have knee pain?” Do you have a similar anecdote? Let’s hear about it in the comments below.

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