Coming to terms with knee pain
It’s funny when it finally hits us that we have knees. They’ve been with us since we were born but knees don’t seem to figure very highly on the scale of Important Body Parts, or Body Parts That Need Looking After. Women look after their faces, their skin and their hair but apart from using body scrubs and lotions, I’ve never really paid attention to my knees.
There’s a pattern when knees decide to assert themselves. They remind us that they exist- “We’re your knees, remember us?”- pretty much the same way other neglected body parts do. The process doesn’t happen overnight. Something in us wears out over time, gets damaged, and because of that, it begins to hurt. That’s when they talk to us.
I’m familiar with knee pain. Every walker is. I get it off and on, but in every episode I’ve had in the past, the pain goes away and stays away until the next time.
But since last May, this pain in my right knee has refused to leave. I was in England walking the Dales Way from Yorkshire to the Lake District when the pain first made itself known to me.
It’s a beautiful stretch by the River Lune between Sedbergh and Patton. The ground is level throughout but there are muddy patches and twisting tree roots and if you’re not careful or haven’t been careful in the past, you might find yourself in trouble.
There was no incident. There was no stumble or fall and no audible cracking of bones. The pain was sudden, sharp like a knife, and got worse and worse with every step I took. I was angry and frustrated, but most of all, afraid that the pain was a sign of something serious. I was in so much agony that I needed to stop walking, but I couldn’t- the Lake District was two days away and because I was in the middle of nowhere without transport, I had to go on.
But there was a silver lining in this, because for once I wasn’t walking alone. My aunt Faridah was with me and because of her own medical complications, my aunt is something like a walking pharmacy. Her anti- inflammatory gels and ibuprofen helped, but the pain was so raw that it returned within minutes.
We made a detour to a village called Grayrigg, the nearest one from where we were. As I waited by the road because I could go no further, my aunt went up ahead in search of a friendly face. She returned a few minutes later with a lady and her little son. They were about to go out for –what else, a walk- when my aunt stopped her.
The short of the story is that a kind soul called Lisa, a friend whom the lady was waiting for, gave us a lift to our next stop in Patton where we rested for the evening. Deciding what to do the next day wasn’t difficult. In the morning, I took a taxi to a nearby town called Burneside and found a park bench to sit on while I waited for my aunt to arrive on foot. After a good fish and chip lunch at the Jolly Fryer, we took a bus to Kendal, our stop for the day.
And then the last day came. After Kendal was Bowness-on-Windermere, the end of the Dales Way. Before we began the walk, I had imagined sauntering triumphantly into the streets of Bowness to cheers and fanfare and flowers thrown at my feet by gorgeous men (no, of course I didn’t, don’t be silly) and now that that day had arrived, as much as I wanted to, sitting in a taxi or bus was no way to complete a walk. My aunt convinced me that I needed to do the final stage on foot, which I did, hobbling and wincing in agony until the end.
Now that I’m back in Malaysia, I’ve been able to rest and have my knee looked at. The report on my MRI scan came back with findings on bone bruises, degenerative changes in the knee joint, cartilage injuries and cystic lesions. Basically they found stuff there from repeated use and wear and tear, but I’ll survive.
It’s been seven weeks, and some days are better than others. Some days the pain is very slight; other days it can hit me hard, without warning, even when my leg is at rest. The good news is that the better days are beginning to outnumber the bad. I’ll still go on many more hikes but I’ve been told to be extra careful when it comes to uneven surfaces, loose rock, and ups and downs. Because I have flat feet, my knees bend inwards when I walk. Orthotic insoles are a great help but my knees still aren’t completely straight so it’s become more important now for me to pay attention to the ground I’m stepping on.
Remember when I was afraid the pain was a sign of something serious? I’ve dissected my thoughts on that. What I was truly afraid of was being unable to go outdoors as often as I wanted to. I was worried for myself- I already have a weak back and that’s enough for me- but I was also afraid that from then on, it would hurt every time I went out on a hike. In short, I was afraid of pain. Of future pain, to be exact. And that made me scared, angry and frustrated.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend before my walk in Scotland last autumn (here and here). I was afraid, I told him.
“What exactly are you afraid of?” he asked, not unkindly.
“I don’t know. Of falling down, of hurting myself, that my back will hurt.”
“So you’re afraid it’s going to hurt?” He paused and sipped his coffee.
I realised then how stupid I sounded. I was afraid of pain, something that probably would happen, knowing how my body works, but it was something I could prepare myself for and had in fact, dealt with in the past.
Here’s the thing about fear: it holds you back. If I’m afraid of drowning, I might never sit in a boat and never know what it feels like to be out at sea. If I allow this fear of pain to get the better of me, I’ll never be as brave as I really want to be. Being afraid of something is sometimes more damaging than the thing itself.
That conversation over coffee didn’t end there. My friend had figured out what I was afraid of.
“Afraid of pain,” he repeated.
“Something like that.”
“But you’re still going, right?”
Hell, yes. I’m not missing this.
Because of the way my body works –or doesn’t- this pain will always be a part of me, thanks to my defective yet wonderful flat feet. Although I still carry rucksacks, I use luggage with wheels when I can. I’ve learnt my lesson when it comes to walks and always use baggage transfer services. They cost more, but I’m going to need some help if I hope to be doing this till I’m 70.
Now what was it that Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich said about knees in her famous column, ‘Wear Sunscreen’?
“Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone,” she said.
I know I will. Remember you have them and be thankful you’re out there on your feet, even when it hurts.
© 2017, Anis. All rights reserved.