One of the things I am constantly told as a fat person is that for fat people, knee pain is inevitable. And in fact, I am told, I can expect a lifetime of “bad knees”. Now, given my somewhat skewed view of the universe, rather than scaring me silly, the threat of “bad knees” usually make me think of an image like the one in the body cream ad above, or this silly image below:
But putting the silly pictures aside for a moment, I am an athlete who has had some problems with knee and leg pain my entire life. I have been lucky enough to have some doctors who are great, but have also run into the all-too-common problem of fat-phobic doctors diagnosing me with having knees while fat.
My feet and leg problems started at birth. When I was very young, and quite skinny, I was severely pigeon-toed. As a result, I wore a brace with bars connecting my feet to bed every night. It looked sort of like this:
Now I wore this brace to bed back when I was too young to untie and tie my own shoes. I’m fairly sure that the need to get in and out of bed to go potty while wearing these things has shaped my sardonic view of the world, but I digress.
When I was in high school, and I was going through one of my thin periods, I ran track. I ran the mile and the 2 mile races (mostly because nobody else wanted to…). When I first started running, I had severe problems with shin splints. Because I was thin, nobody thought that the solution was simply to tell me to lose weight. We tried a variety of things including elaborate taping, different icing regimens and a lot of aspirins before somebody figured out that I just needed tennis shoes with a different sort of arch support. For an investment of $25 the problem was solved.
Later in life, I suffered a few injuries. I had a fairly severe meniscus tear in my knee as a result of leaping onto a pile of mats to adjust some audio equipment at the gym. I also tore a ligament in my foot because I tripped on the front of my sandal and landed wrong. Each of those injuries netted me a month or two on crutches.
So when I got midway through my most recent jaunt of marathon training, it’s not surprising that I found myself coping with some knee pain. Luckily I had a great GP at the time who referred me to a sports medicine doctor. He confirmed that I had a whole lot going on in the lower-extremities department. He noted the flat feet (that I’ve had since birth) the fact that my feet pronate (also had since birth) and prescribed some custom shoe inserts and a few specific exercises I could do to strengthen my knee joint. Problem solved. Marathon finished. Cheap medal and sweaty finish line photos earned. And even though I was about the same weight then that I am now, neither my GP or my sports medicine guy gave me any flack about my weight.
I didn’t realize then just how lucky I was.
Since then, I have moved and changed insurance and have had other doctors. These doctors were not so great actually. One of them asked about knee pain (I didn’t bring it up). And I said, that yes, sometimes after a tough workout, my knees will be a little sore. “Aha!” the doctor cried. “This is proof positive you need to lose weight. If you lose weight, your knee pain will go away. If you stay this weight your knees will hurt all the time!”
The fact that my knees function at all, given the foot problems I was born with as well as the athletic injuries I’ve suffered is pretty amazing. And at no point, did this doctor ask about any medical history regarding my feet, shoes, injuries, sports activities or anything else. He simply predicted that I would be in pain as long as I was fat and that the remedy was simply to lose weight and keep it off.
Never mind that I didn’t come in there asking about knee pain.
Never mind that there is no method, and I mean NONE that is proven to be successful for long-term weight loss in most people and that even if I was one of the 5-10 percent of people who are able to lose weight and keep it off, there is no guarantee that it will do anything at all to relieve knee pain.
Never mind that there are successful methods of coping with knee pain that are widely considered effective for people of all sizes and that these methods have nothing to do with losing weight.
Nope, once this doctor diagnoses you with fat knees, the treatment is a single piece of paper with a diet on it. According to Doctor Know-It-All, the way to fix your knee problems is, Breakfast: One egg (boiled), one piece of wheat toast (dry), one cup of coffee (black) and 4oz. orange juice, etc…
And my story is so mild compared to the other stories that I hear from folks about this subject. People who are suffering from knee pain and told that all they have to do is lose weight and their knee pain will go away. And they are told that their doctor won’t bother to try any other treatment for knee pain until after they lose weight.
It’s lazy and it’s unethical.
If you are coping with knee pain, there are some things you can do. Very often, knee pain can be improved by correcting underlying muscle imbalances. You can get help from a physical therapist or sports medicine specialist. You can supplement this therapy with simple at-home exercises like those offered by my colleague Cinder Ernst. Also, you may need to see a foot doctor to get custom inserts made for your shoes. Sometimes simply switching to a good sturdy shoe with good arch support can make all the difference.
You may also find help, as I did from somebody who teaches Alexander Technique and can help you figure out what you are doing in your every day life that exacerbates your knee pain.
Exercise can really help folks coping with knee pain, but it’s important to do it the right way. Make sure you get the help of an exercise instructor or personal trainer to make sure that you are working out in a way that strengthens and doesn’t threaten your knee joints. I offer a few simple tips in this video.
Not all fat people have knee pain. Not all thin people are free from knee pain. But whatever your size, there are things you can do to protect your knees and help you cope with knee pain should it arise. Make sure you get the help you need, and don’t let anybody scare, threaten or intimidate you by diagnosing you with having knees while fat.
The Fat Chick
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