A Day in the Life of Your Knee

Got an achy twinge? A limp? Out-and-out arthritis? Well, why don’t you try asking your knee how it feels.

By Jill Provost
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

kneesPhoto by Steve Vaccariello Illustration by Bryan Christie

It’s cozy beneath these blankets, but I want out. I am achy and inflamed, brittle from a motionless night. I wait for The Body to register my familiar morning stiffness. He moans and rolls over, not quite ready to face the day. C’mon, get up already so we can work out these kinks.

He flings his feet over the side of the bed and plants them on the floor. I’m not gonna lie: Straightening myself out under all 210 pounds of him takes some serious grit. I brace myself for the load. My upstairs neighbor, the thigh muscle, contracts and yanks the quadriceps tendon, which pulls on my kneecap to make the leg extend. I’m a hinge, with pulleys that bend and straighten me.

The other knee snickers. He’s not in as bad a shape as I am and thinks I’ve got the martyr routine down pat. The quads and hamstrings like to joke that I’m their little marionette. Yeah, real knee-slapper, guys.

As he gets dressed, The Body flips on ESPN to catch replays from last night’s NFL game. Oh, dear. What’s this? His team’s running back suffered an ACL tear? Side-tackled while all his weight was on one foot. Body, cover your eyes, for the love of God! Why does he make me watch this? He’s wincing, too, because I suffered that same injury about 20 years ago. It still haunts us.

The Story of My Demise

The Body had been out of college for ten years and had let all of us (muscles, ligaments, and tendons) go to pot. Not that I blame him. You know the drill: sit all day at a desk, meet friends for happy hour. Who has time for exercise? Then, one weekend, he joined a pickup basketball game. Just ran right out there like the college athlete he no longer was—no warming up, no taking it easy—and snap! Tore my anterior cruciate ligament. It’s the string that runs through my center, connecting the thighbone to the shinbone, and it keeps me from wobbling all over the place. Worst day of my life. I heard 
a pop and felt a wave of excruciating pain wash over me as The Body fell to the ground.

That’s the reason I’m so craggy before my time (I’m only 49). Surgery and physical therapy did get me working perfectly again. But ligament tears leave us knees with a fifty-fifty chance of getting arthritis within 10 to 20 years. I wouldn’t take those odds 
to Vegas. My cartilage, the protective tissue on the ends of bones that keeps them from grinding against each other, may not ever fully recover.

Finally, The Body decides to switch the TV to the weather report. The meteorologist is calling for fair skies. Yeah, right—I know better. I get extra achy just before it rains, and I’m throbbing. The Body’s doctor says he hears that complaint all the time but isn’t quite sure why the pain worsens. His best guess: When air pressure drops, my already inflamed joint swells even more, irritating the nerves. Before he limps out the door, The Body grabs his umbrella to be safe. Good call, my man.

The Scale Makes Me Sad

The Body pulls into a drive-through on the way to work to get coffee. Thank goodness he’s nixed those sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches. With all this additional weight he’s put on, I’m like a toothpick supporting an anvil. Not only is The Body’s belly crippling me, it’s also putting my better half, the “good knee,” at serious risk for arthritis. My partner is almost three times more likely to get it, due to The Body’s extra-large size.

Happily, the scale has been on a downward trend lately. This past month, The Body has lost five pounds, which has taken 20 pounds 
of stress off me.

He shuffles into the office. Man, is it cramped under this desk. The Body feels my discomfort and swallows a couple of ibuprofen. They’ll help quell the pain for a few hours, but alas, they are not a permanent solution. Lately, the doc has been saying that eventually The Body will need to—gulp—replace me.

Actually, it sounds worse than it is. I’ll say goodbye to my worn-out cartilage. My bones will be resurfaced and plated with metal. True, I’ll barely recognize myself, and the other knee will probably start calling me The Terminator or some nonsense. But what’s The Body’s alternative? Hobble around for the rest of his life? That’s not much fun for me either.

Can We Get Some Exercise, Already?

Ooh, it’s his wife on the phone. We’re going to the gym after work—hurrah!

As we head inside, The Body sees his wife sprinting toward him in heels. Ouch. Glad I’m not one of her knees. She didn’t grab an umbrella and doesn’t want to get drenched. Hey, lady, worry about your joints, not a few raindrops. High heels are a torture device for us, and women are more prone to knee issues than men are to begin with. But she’s young and fit, which will protect her … for now.

Not that I’m in love with The Body’s “comfy” sneakers. “Stability athletic shoes” sound good, but the more rigid the shoes are, the more stress they put on me. I wish he’d swap them for flat, flexible shoes with soles that let your feet bend.

The Body looks longingly toward the basketball court. There are 
still plenty of activities he can do—swimming, biking, Tai Chi … old-
people exercise, he calls it. But I love it all because it keeps me from getting worn and rusty. It used to be that if I got injured, they’d put me in a cast. Boy, was that dumb. In order to regenerate, cartilage needs to move and endure weight-bearing activity. The Body takes a spin on the elliptical. Woo-wee! I feel better than I have in days. I can’t wait for the weight machines. Strong muscles help support and stabilize my joint.

My Favorite Meal

Back at home, The Body’s wife whips up a quick dinner of salmon, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. I am pumped. The Body doesn’t think much about how his diet affects me, but it’s important. I’ve got low-grade inflammation, and fatty fish like salmon may slow down my disease. See, inflammation is the body’s defense against injury. It causes swelling and pain. That’s great when there’s an actual enemy. But with chronic inflammation, the body keeps fighting even when there’s no threat. And all that heavy artillery can contribute to my arthritis.

The Body yawns, and I’m relieved. He loves to burn the midnight oil and doesn’t realize that sleep can ease my pain. I think tonight’s gym session tuckered him out. The Body is being sweet to me tonight—sleeping on his side with a pillow wedged between me and the other knee. He prefers snoozing on his belly, but I like this position best. And if I’m happy, The Body can get a good night’s rest. Now, that’s what I call a real joint effort.

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