I know first-hand how devastating knee injuries can be to runners. It’s been years since I’ve been able to run more than 5 minutes without ending up in searing pain.
I’ve more or less made peace with the fact that I’ll need surgery at some point, and perhaps when I get older, a full knee replacement, but what will that mean for my running? Will it solve my knee issues, restoring me to my former glory, or will I have to hang up my running shoes for good?
Running on a Knee Replacement
You’d expect medical experts to be able to give a pretty decisive answer to whether you should run after having a knee replaced, but strangely, it seems the matter is more or less still up for debate.
The Arguments Against Running on a knee Replacement
When we consider why people are scheduled for knee replacement surgery, it’s sort of implied that you should not be running on your bionic knee. The operation is recommended if…
- The pain in your knee disrupts your day-to-day activities (that’s your ability to walk, rather than run).
- You experience moderate-to-severe knee pain even when resting.
- Your knees are inflamed and painful despite extra rest and medication.
- Your leg has started to bow one way or the other.
As you can see, a full knee replacement is a worst-case scenario sort of procedure, done to help the patient regain some sort of normalcy in their life.
It’s done, for example, to help someone get to and from the grocery store without ending up in agony, or to get a full night’s rest without their chronic knee pain waking them up every hour. Unfortunately, helping someone get back on their running schedule just doesn’t fall under the scope of the procedure.
But why is this the case? Sure, surgery is expensive, and it may seem a little OTT to have it done to facilitate “luxuries” such as running, but I wanted to know if there were any actual health reasons for saying goodbye to that runner’s high after the procedure.
Well, many believe that running – or any high-impact activities for that matter – should be avoided after a knee replacement because it will cause unnecessary wear on the artificial joint.
Others claim running and jogging needs to be avoided as it increases the chances that you’ll fall over, further damaging your knee.
It’s a little disheartening to hear all this, I know, but that’s not the full story.
The Arguments for Running on a Knee Replacement
Did you know that there are three different types of major knee surgery? Well, there are, and each one can have very different results.
Partial Knee Resurfacing
The least invasive option is known as partial knee resurfacing (unicompartmental knee replacement). A lot of patients report that it helped return not just “quality of life” functionality, but the ability to steadily reestablish themselves in their sporting pastime of choice, whether that be golf, skiing, tennis, and, you’ve guessed it…running — hurray!
This is because, as the name of the op suggests, most of the natural knee is left untouched. All the central ligaments, ligaments that are either removed or worked on during a full knee replacement, remain intact.
Full Knee Replacement
Sadly, not everyone is suitable for partial resurfacing. It all depends on what’s going on under the hood (or cap, anyway). If your knees have degraded past a certain point, full knee replacement will likely be on the cards.
However, there have been plenty of instances where, post-op, patients have eventually eased themselves back into high-impact exercise.
And finally, we have the biologic knee replacement, which doesn’t involve any of the metal or spacers of a traditional replacement. Rather, living articular cartilage is harvested from a donor and used to coat the problem areas of bone.
A living elastic meniscus shock absorber is also drawn from the donor and inserted in between the newly coated bones.
It’s essentially a knee transplant rather than a replacement, and it’s shown to have miraculous results. After receiving their biologic knee, professional athletes were able to return to their discipline and compete at the highest level, so it goes without saying that it can help a hobbyist runner enjoy their favorite routes again.
That said, a knee transplant isn’t a guaranteed cure. During my research, I discovered that after upwards of 5 years on their new knees, roughly 15% of bio-knee patients had to have full knee replacement surgery anyway.
What’s more, similar to partial resurfacing, knee troubles have to be caught early to qualify for a knee transplant, which brings me to my next point.
The Athlete’s Tendency to Put Off Medical Knee Assessment and Surgery
Knee operations are a terrifying thought for anyone, but to an athlete, they’re unthinkable. We just can’t shake the fear that an op is only going to make things worse or completely obliterate our ability to run.
As such, it’s common for us to just wince through the pain, putting off medical assessment. I certainly did. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t seek medical help because I simply thought nothing could be done, that this was my lot in life and that I’d lost the genetic lottery. But the earlier you see a specialist, the better.
The longer you endure the pain in your knees, the more damage is being done, which will limit your options in terms of treatment. Remember, you don’t have to agree to any surgery, but requesting a medical consultation is key, and until then, make sure you’re running in supportive footwear.
I’ve been using Nike Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2 running shoes. Obviously, they haven’t solved my issues, but they do a great job of reducing the burden of walking and running on my knees.
So, Should You Run After a Knee Operation?
While there is plenty of evidence that seems to tell us that life after a full knee replacement isn’t quite as bleak and sedentary as we may think, it’s important that we don’t take it as gospel. There just isn’t sufficient research in this area at the moment.
What I can say for sure is that our chances of returning to high-impact exercise skyrocket the earlier we get our knees checked out, so if you’re suffering, book an appointment with your GP today.