What I learned in physical therapy
When my knees started hurting at age 22, I was frustrated and confused. I thought knee pain was for people with arthritis or poorly healed injuries. I was living in a six-floor walkup, working in an “ergonomic” chair for 60 hours a week, and running 20 miles a week. When I got up from sitting, or during my runs, or eventually even just doing nothing, my knees would yell at me. At the time I was skeptical that physical therapy could do anything for me. My girlfriend had been a pretty serious figure skater and swore by it. When the pain got bad enough, she convinced me to try it.
On the first day, I took a look around the office. It was half doctor’s office, half gym. Therapists and their patients moved back and forth between the two. In the gym, people did some normal gym activities like stationary bike and free weights, but also exercises I’d never seen. They used big rubberbands (therabands), or straps, or big foam cylinders. Why are they doing these things in a PT office?
I told my therapist about my symptoms. She examined me, touching different parts around my knee and asking me to demonstrate range of motion with and without weight. “Your tendons are tight and inflexible. When your knee is bent, your patella rubs against your femur. This causes inflammation. The more inflamed, the more rubbing, creating a positive feedback loop. We need to relax the tendons that attach to your knee. Do you stretch?”
“Nope.” Years ago I had read a meta-study concluding that stretching doesn’t decrease risk of injury. But it seemed obvious that her explanation and solution were plausible.
“I’ll show you how to stretch and some exercises, and you should be pain free in a few weeks.” I was skeptical, but willing to try anything. After some massage, some stretching, and a little warm up, we came to the foam roller.
The therapist asked me to keep my upper body straight and in line with my leg, but I kept accidentally hunching over. The point of contact was extremely painful. I tried to remind myself that this was a brand new skill. I should try to keep an open mind. When I got up after a few minutes of this torture, I noticed that the dull ache I had grown accustomed to in the preceding months was almost gone. I was sold. As soon as I bought my own foam roller, I was rolling when I woke up in the morning, before I ran, after I ran, and just before bed at night. I continued seeing rapid improvement. Soon it didn’t hurt. It was like my own personal masseuse, available whenever I wanted. In a few weeks, I was cured!
In the years following, I went to physical therapy two more times. Once when I pulled a tendon in my hand while rock climbing, and again after I broke my ankle. My girlfriend also had PT for her wrist RSI, and the stretches she brought back have been invaluable for me, too. In the videos below, I summarize everything I’ve retained and do regularly.
Keep in mind I’m not a doctor, so if you have a problem, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. The sooner you address it, the easier it’ll be.
Probably best for rock climbing. Here’s a pdf if you prefer.
This should help anyone who runs, bikes, hikes, or sits in a chair all day.
Do have any stretches you do regularly? Devices you swear by? Please share!