Why you should be doing balancing exercises for knee injuries (and how to do them properly)
Something seems off. Your movement feels difficult, and you haven’t exercised pain-free since your knee injury.
You’ve done the research and found out that it could be your balance. But you’re still not sure why balance exercises can solve your knee problems, and you don’t know how to do them.
So, let us clear this all up for you.
Why Balance Exercises can help your knee problems
What do balance exercises do?
When you have a knee injury (or any joint injury for that matter), there’s usually some pain, a change in muscle strength and reduced joint mobility. These factors affect how your brain ‘communicates’ with your knee, when you’re moving or at rest.
Balance exercises train this body-mind communication. They fine-tune muscle coordination and improve your proprioception or position sense.
What is proprioception?
It’s your joint position sense. This is your ability to know where your body is in space without looking at it. Proprioception is one of the most essential elements of human movement.
Why? Well, if you’ve ever walked into a dark room suddenly, you’ll know!
To help explain a little more about what proprioception is, let’s look at the task of climbing stairs.
When you climb up a flight of stairs, do you need to look at your feet as you go up? Likely not. How is it possible that you know precisely how high to lift your leg so that your foot lands directly on the next step?
That’s proprioception! Good balance, coordination and agility are the three cornerstones of good proprioception.
Why are balance exercises important when you have a knee injury?
Balance exercises train your position sense. They help you develop better balance, movement coordination, and agility. With this, you experience improved spatial awareness and faster reaction times. Especially with sudden or unexpected changes in your movement and environment.
For example, suppose you step on a stone while running. In that case, good position sense allows your brain to quickly recalculate your movements, and you can carry on without injury.
It also enhances your posture – which helps align your joints and primes you for movement.
The benefits of balance exercises for knee injuries:
- Better coordination
- Improved balance
- Increased agility
- Improved sports performance
- Reduced risk of (re)injury
- Improved quality of life
- Better spatial awareness
- Faster reaction time
- Enhanced posture
How should you do balance exercises?
Where to start
Start at a level that is comfortably challenging for you.
How do you know what this level is?
Excessive pain or swelling is a tell-tale sign you’re working at the wrong level. Keep in mind, having some discomfort is expected while you’re recovering.
Is it a meniscus tear, runner’s knee or an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury you’re dealing with? Knowing what’s typical for your type of injury is an excellent way to benchmark your symptoms.
In this respect, it’s also crucial to be realistic about where you are in your healing process. For example, balancing on an unstable surface (like a balance board) on top of a fresh knee injury will only worsen.
As a guide, when starting your balance training, your knee pain should not be on a pain scale intensity of more than 3/10 (0/10 = no pain and 10/10 = most severe pain). More than this, you risk worsening your knee injury or causing a new one.
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How to progress
Simply put, you should only move to the next level once you’ve fully mastered the previous level.
It’s essential to monitor your knee pain. It should not increase during or after your balance exercises. If this happens, bring your exercise level down a notch and see how your knee responds.
Repeat this process until you have no increase in your knee pain, either during or after the exercises.
Generally, following the 3/10 pain intensity rule mentioned above should keep you exercising at a safe level.
Common mistakes when doing balance exercises
Starting too early in your recovery
While you still have moderate to severe knee pain, swelling, and inflammation, you should avoid balance exercises until these symptoms subside.
As soon as you feel your knee is out of the ‘angry and inflamed’ stage, you can start with low-level balance challenges and progress from there. We’ve included examples below.
Progressing too quickly
It’s tempting to speed up the process by skipping progression levels. Especially as some of the exercises look easy. However, moving too fast through a balance training program after a knee injury means you may miss out on its full benefit.
It can also do more harm than good if you do too much too soon! This may set your knee injury recovery back.
Not adding all the dimensions of balance into your training
Balance training after a knee injury is not only about standing on one leg for as long as you can. It’s slightly more complex than that.
Firstly, your balance must be developed when recovering from a knee injury, both static (for holding a yoga pose) and dynamic (lunging and landing over a rock face).
The more senses, movements (in different directions), surfaces and environments you add to your balance training mix, the better.
This ensures that your brain learns to sense and control your knee correctly, no matter what position you’re in or the movement you’re doing.
Ultimately, there will be no more surprises!
Examples of balancing exercises for knee injuries
Level 1: Balancing on a stable surface, looking straight ahead
This is one of the most straightforward exercises because your brain uses feedback from your eyes to stabilise your body, and it doesn’t have to coordinate any movement.
Level 2: Balancing on a stable surface while turning your head
By moving your head, you force your brain to rely less on the feedback from your eyes and more on the messages that it’s receiving from your joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles.
Level 3: Balancing on a stable surface, eyes closed
Closing your eyes forces the brain to listen to and fine-tune the messages your body is sending if it wants to maintain your balance.
More progression options
Balance exercises have to also be progressed to resemble more real-life situations e.g. balancing on unstable surfaces or while moving limbs. These progressions are usually only introduced once you’ve built enough strength and control in your knee through the rest of your rehab exercises.
How do I know my balance training is working?
Patients report that improved balance gives them a better body awareness: An enhanced sense of stability, coordination and smoothness in their movements that wasn’t there before.
And most of the science agrees. A combination of balance and coordination exercises alongside a strength, flexibility, and aerobic exercise program improves your physical and cognitive function, positively impacting your quality of life.
Your daily activities simply feel much easier to do when your balance is good.