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From sitting down to standing up, moving forward, backward or just standing still, your knees work overtime to support your body. Lack of exercise robs your knees of much-needed activity required to keep them strong and functioning optimally. Progressing slowly and gently back into a regular program of activity can help return strength to the muscles, bones and connective tissue in your knees.
Your knees are a veritable super-highway of connective tissue, muscle and bone that connects the upper and lower leg. The femur of the upper leg meets the tibia of the lower leg at the knee joint. The condyle structure of the femur is the shallow crater where the patella, or knee cap, rests. The patella is stabilized by two, main tendons: the quadriceps tendon that connects the knee to the upper leg, and the patellar tendon that joins with the lower leg. Major ligaments like the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments are protected beneath the knee cap in addition to other connective tissue supporting the muscles of the upper and lower leg.
The muscles around your knees contribute significantly to the strength of the joint. The quadriceps tendon and the patellar tendon stabilize the knee and connect the joint to large muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles. The stronger the muscles around your knees are, the better able they are to absorb shock and take stress off of the joint. Lack of exercise combined with loss of lower body muscle mass weakens the stabilizing structure of the knee and leaves the joint more vulnerable to fatigue and injury.
Lack of exercise and activity can weaken the knees with the onset of muscle atrophy. Muscle atrophy occurs when the cells in your muscles shrink. The cells shrink due to a loss of protein, cytoplasm and organelles resulting in a small and weakened muscle. Atrophy can occur simply from disuse or can be as a result of neurological conditions preventing regular use of muscle fibers. Lack of exercise can weaken the knees rapidly since the quadriceps and hamstrings are anti-gravity muscles used to hold you upright. Atrophy occurs faster in antigravity muscles, like the ones supporting the knee joint, as opposed to antagonist muscles. The average adult can experience up to nine percent muscle atrophy after just 12 days of immobility.
Fortunately, atrophy from disuse or immobility can easily be reversed with regular exercise. You can regain strength in your knees by starting out with a basic physical therapy program that will reintroduce your muscles to resistance exercises and a full range of motion. Regaining knee strength can include leg exercises on machines with light weight or aquatic therapy like walking in the pool. A stationary bicycle and slow walking can also be added to reacquaint the joint with weight-bearing activities and a full range of motion. Consult your health care professional prior to starting any recovery exercise program since the underlying cause of the atrophy may affect the therapy regimen they prescribe for you. Once you've obtained clearance to start an exercise program, be patient with yourself and your knees. Regaining strength through exercise involves an entire network of nerves, muscles and joints relearning how to fire properly.