You stand up. Your knee cracks. You walk downstairs. Your knee pops. What’s up with all that noise?”
Often it’s just the fluid that coats your joints being pushed through certain ranges of motion—and is totally benign,” explains Benjamin Butts, director of rehabilitation services and performance therapy at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. But other times that constant cracking, coupled with consistent pain, can be a red flag that something is wrong.
So what’s the cause? Generally, tight or misaligned muscles will pull the knee cap out of alignment, explains David Reavy, director of React Physical Therapy in Chicago. Over time that imbalance can cause clicking or popping, which could be a potential problem, says Butts, “because the cartilage can become worn down and potentially lead to early onset arthritis, as well as many issues involved with deterioration of the joint.”
To alleviate the awkward noises and keep potential injuries at bay, try these exercises 3 times a week for maximum results.
Why: Self myofascial release is a technique that helps relieve muscle tension and tightness through direct pressure. Stretching, by contrast, simply elongates the muscle. “Releasing allows you to activate tight muscles that are shifting the balance of your muscle structure,” says Reavy. Use this technique to release tight calf muscles and get your knee cap back on track.
How: Sit with your calf on top of a tennis ball. Stack your other leg on top of it, and roll yourself up and down over the ball. Once you find a spot that’s tender, stop and point your foot up and down for 30 seconds. Repeat as needed.
Hip Flexor Release
Why: “Knee pain is often caused by a misaligned hip,” says Reavy, who recommends a hip flexor release to combat this.
How: Tape two tennis balls together (since your hip flexor is a large muscle, you’ll need something a little bigger). Lie on your stomach and place the taped balls just below your hip bone. Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the balls. Bend the knee on the side of the release to a 90-degree angle and swing your leg side from to side as far as you can tolerate. Repeat as needed in 30-second- to 2-minute intervals.
IT Band Release
Why: The Illiotibial (IT) Band is a ligament that runs down the outer edge of the thigh from hip to shin. It’s attached to the knee and helps stabilize and move the joint, which is why, when it’s tight or inflamed, it can pull the knee cap out of alignment, says Reavy.
How: Lie on the side you want to release and place a foam roller under your bottom leg, halfway between your hip and knee. Slide your leg up and down over the foam roller, moving it from the top of the knee to the base of the hip. Try to work over the more tender areas as much as you can tolerate. Repeat in 30-second intervals for 2 minutes. To focus on a specific area of the IT band, locate the most tender area with the foam roller and stop. Bend your knee at a 90-degree angle then straighten. Repeat the motion of bending and straightening for 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat on other tender areas of the IT band.
Side Steps with Resistance Band
Why: The outer quad muscle tends to be weaker than the muscle that runs along the top of your thigh, which leads to the kind of imbalance that causes your knee cap to pull out of line. The solution? Strengthen that outer muscle, says Butts.
How: Pull a medium resistance band up right below your knees (not shown) and lower down into a squat (if this is uncomfortable, standing works, too), and move two steps to the right then two steps to the left, working hard to pull your legs apart and stretch the band. Repeat one 30-second to 1-minute set 3 times, 3 days a week.
Inner Thighs Squat
Why: Like the outer thigh, the inner thigh is also often weaker than the top part of the quad muscle. To strengthen it—and keep knee pain at bay—Reavy recommends inner thighs squats.
How: Place your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed out at a 45-degree angle, keeping the weight on your heels. As you begin to squat, bring your hips back as if you’re trying to sit in a chair that’s too far behind you. While squatting, move your knees out to the sides and go as low as you can—though no lower than a 90-degree angle—and push back up through your heels. Do 3 sets of 15, 3 days a week.
Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO) Activation
Why: Your VMO, aka the tear-drop shaped quad muscle that runs along the inside of the knee cap, is often one of the weaker muscles on the thigh, says Reavy. Again, that can pull your knee cap off track. The solution? You guessed it: Strengthen it.
How: Stand in a split stance, keeping all of your weight in your front leg. Squat straight down, stopping halfway. Your front knee should stay directly over your ankle. While squatting, twist your front leg to the right, hold for 3 to 5 seconds. Release and rise up, pushing through the balls of your feet. Do 3 sets of 15 on each leg, 3 days a week.