Self-Care Tips for Athletes with Joint Swelling

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I saw a physical therapy patient this week with a chronic knee injury.  His knee was swollen and stiff, much more than normal.  I know his knee well and it typically has only mild swelling with good muscle tone.  His diagnosis is Grade 1 chondromalacia or irritation behind his kneecap.  It’s an issue which most of us, myself included, over 30 years old commonly have behind our patella or kneecaps.

Puzzled with how his knee looked, I asked: “What have you done to make your knee so cranky?”  “Nothing different Doc,” the 42 year old cross-trainer said frustratingly, “Same damn workouts I’ve done for the past 6-7 weeks.”

Here comes my big question: “What did you do after your workouts in regards to cooling down, rollers, stretching and ice?

There it is….the look of a cow looking at a new fence post!

The answer was clear even before he embarrassingly replied: “I didn’t do anything…I didn’t have time.”  It’s a lame excuse and a common practice for athletes of all ages.  It’s my mission with MikeRyanSportsMedicine.com to change that mindset and behavior.

The Truth about Joint Swelling

There are many sources of joint swelling or effusion.  The extra fluid inside a joint can come from the inner lining of the joint, the bone itself or from an infection.

It’s much easier and less painful to keep swelling out of a joint than it is to get the swelling out of a swollen joint.

The important part to note here is to minimize the reason for the swelling instead of trying to convince your body to reabsorb the fluids after they have filled the joint.  I think of process as similar to a flooded bathroom: fixing the leaky pipe under the sink is a much easier solution than mopping up 20 gallons of water covering the floor and soaked under the cabinets.

Tips to Control Joint Effusion

  1. Roll – using a roller on your muscles before and after a workout is a simple relax muscles and to allow your joints to move normally and to do their job.
  2. Stretch – Five minutes of lengthening muscles and fascia before and after a workout improves blood flow and promotes the drainage of waste products from your hard-working muscles.
  3. IceIce is your best friend so start spending more time with it.  If a joint or soft tissue is either overly warm, red in color or sore after a workout, ice it for 10-15 minutes.  Ice quickly decreases the metabolism or joint activity while also decreasing pain.  Both are important.
  4. Posture – As most of us do after our workouts, sitting in a car or at a desk for prolonged periods of time is not good for our spine or joints.  Sitting shortens some of our major muscle groups like our hip flexors and chest muscles. If you have to sit after a workout, make a point to do some of the following:
  • Use perfect spine posture
  • Consistently engage your core muscles
  • Kneel on one knee every 20-30 minutes
  • Sit on a large therapy ball instead of a chair
  • Get up every 20-30 minutes to stretch hamstrings, hip flexors and chest muscles

These are simple steps which don’t require much time or effort. Keeping our bodies healthy is important for many reasons.  Controlling inflammation and swelling should be a top priority for athletes with the common bumps & bruises and wear & tear that comes along with aging and the sports we love.

4 replies
    • Mike Ryan
      Mike Ryan says:

      You’re a smart man Dave. Taking care of your joints now will DRASTICALLY enhance the likelihood that you’ll be active 20, 30 and 40 years from now. When you see elderly people who are unable to move freely without pain it is rarely due to unstable joints. It’s much more likely that arthritic joints, poor muscle tone and limited balance are contributing to a sedentary lifestyle.

      Reply
  1. Eric Nelson
    Eric Nelson says:

    Diet has a major affect on swelling as well right? What do you recommend to decrease inflammation in our diet? I have heard turmeric and ginger are good for decreasing inflammation. What about foods that increase inflammation?

    Reply

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