How To Handle Stairs When You Have Arthritic Knees

Knee arthritis can make it painful to go up and down stairs. We have some suggestions to help you take the stairs with less pain.

Most teens and young adults don’t think twice about dashing up and down steps. As we age, however, our knee joints feel less invincible and more vulnerable and stairs may no longer be an effortless prospect. Climbing and descending stairs is particularly difficult for people with knee arthritis.

Arthritis causes degeneration of the cartilage that cushions the knee joint. Without protective cushioning, the act of climbing stairs becomes uncomfortable. Even when people have mild arthritis, it can be discouragingly painful to navigate stairs.

Most people with knee problems find descending stairs far more painful than climbing them. This is because going down the stairs puts significant force on the knee and the patello-femoral joint located beneath the kneecap. This force is intensified for people who have weak quadriceps or thigh muscles, because there’s no muscle to absorb the force of each step. The entire impact falls on the knee joint.

If you suffer from arthritis or other joint problems that make stairs a challenge, there are some steps you can take to improve your mobility on the stairs and decrease your pain.

  • Strengthen your leg muscles. Leg raises are a simple way to make your muscles stronger. Lie on your back with one leg comfortably bent at the knee. Lift your straight leg about six inches off the ground, tighten your thigh muscle, and hold the lifted leg for a few seconds before lowering it back to the floor. Repeat several times, then do the same exercise with your other leg. Your physician or physical therapist can suggest other exercises to target and strengthen your leg muscles.
  • Avoid prolonged sitting. When you spend hours at your chair in front of a computer, your knees can become stiff. This makes it even more difficult to tackle the stairs.
  • Try going down the stairs backwards. Admittedly, it is not ideal to back down the stairs. However, if other options are not helping your knees, a slow-motion study shows that the forces generated by descending stairs backwards migrate to the hip rather than the knee. If you decide to try this option, exercise care and descend steps that are familiar to you.

You may also want to talk with your doctor to explore additional treatment options.


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