Stairs can seem frustrating, scary, and dreadful if you are experiencing knee arthritis. What if I told you it was possible to stop dreading stairs with knee arthritis if you avoided these five things?! Well, it’s true! If you avoid cluttering stairs, limping, carrying objects, losing balance, and surrendering- your life will change. I have seen it happen over and over again with so many people who thought they would never be able to climb up or down stairs “normally” again! Learn more below.
We asked real people living with knee arthritis how they felt about stairs…can you relate?
“Stairs is just awkward for me. It’s not the pain that’s the worst, although I have a little pain, it’s just really awkward.”
“I’m always frightened of falling downstairs.”
“Going up and down stairs are a problem for me. I have 35 stairs from my front door to my car! Kills me every day!”
“I do better going down stairs instead of upstairs. The pain is horrible. I have 6 stairs to get in my house and 6 steps up from kitchen to den. It’s really difficult.”
“I’m not too good at stairs with knee arthritis no matter which direction I’m going! This is why I have a single level home”
“It’s hard for me to watch my young grandkids because they always want to go up and down the stairs and I can’t keep up!”
Have any of you felt this way before about stairs with knee arthritis?!
The problem with stairs and knee arthritis
One of my recent clients was actually fearful of stairs because she thought going up and down the stairs actually made her knee arthritis worse! And let me tell you, she’s not the only one. In the comments above, others feel the exact same way. People have changed where they live because of the pain.
So, why are stairs such a problem?!
For a majority of people, going down the stairs can be more difficult than going up. This is because you are trying to control your leg against gravity trying to pull it down. Without the right amount of strength, this becomes very difficult and puts abnormal stress through your knee joints.
If you have difficulty going up the stairs and feel like you are death gripping the railing, strength deficits are likely also at play here too.
When climbing the stairs with knee arthritis, you have to be able to support your entire body weight. If you can’t, this is where the railing can become super helpful.
In both of these scenarios, this abnormal loading over and over again can lead to more pain.
Struggling up and down the stairs can be extremely limiting to daily life along with any adventures you may go on! Hills act the same way.
Avoiding certain movements and behaviours can help you tackle any stairs and/or hills that come your way.
Understand what is possible
Before we go any further, I want you to know that climbing stairs with knee arthritis won’t damage your joint IF your joints are ready for it!
The idea of learning the things to avoid is going to set you up for success in preparing your knees to climb stairs with ease. But first, I want to give you a sneak peek into some of the things my clients did to make stairs a breeze now.
What should you avoid when climbing stairs?
1. If you have pain with stairs, avoid trying to carry anything in your hands.
Okay, but who is going to carry the laundry or the holiday decorations up and down the stairs?!
This is a common mistake that can be very dangerous especially if you are not confident in your ability to go up and down the stairs.
If your joint is experiencing abnormal loading already due to strength deficits and lack of muscle control, adding on extra weight can make things much more painful. Having one hand occupied can also be dangerous to your balance if you are not confident in your knee(s).
If you need to carry I recommend using a bag that you can put over your shoulder to carry up or down the stairs. Those reusable grocery bags work great for this. You could also use a drawstring bag for small items too!
When carrying something larger, you can set it on the stairs and move it up as you go. Coming down may be a little trickier with larger objects. One safe way to do this could be going down the stairs backwards, moving the object down to the stair 1-2 above you (of course safety permitting⚠️).
Both ways can be helpful if you need to take something up or down the stairs with you without sacrificing your safety! Stairs do require extra concentration when carrying and maneuvering objects, so it is crucial you only try what you are comfortable with!
2. Avoid cluttering stairs with loose objects
This one is pretty straightforward. When tackling stairs with pain, any distraction or obstacle becomes even more dangerous. Keeping stairs clear can make your journey up and down so much easier!
3. Avoid limping up or down the stairs
I know this can sound very challenging because if you find yourself limping you usually don’t have the ability to stop. This can lead to a higher fall risk down the stairs, especially if you don’t have confidence in your leg(s).
There are strategies you can use to help prevent limping when going up or down the stairs. Let’s take a look:
- Using a stair rail can likely provide the support you need, especially when going up the stairs. Ideally, there would be rails on both sides
- Using a cane can be extremely helpful, even if it is just temporary or if you use it during a flare up
- Try going up or down the stairs sideways or backwards (safety permitting⚠️)
**It is important to note that when you are limping, you are putting abnormal loads through parts of your joints that may not appreciate it. The goal is to keep your walking and stair climbing as normal as possible (I know it is easier said than done!). The less compensations you can learn, the happier your joints will be.
4. Avoid losing your balance
This answer is two-fold because the obvious is DUH! you don’t want to lose your balance and fall down the stairs. This becomes much more of an issue if you don’t train your balance. Goes with the saying “Use it or LOSE it!”
When you are doing stairs with knee arthritis and really, arthritis in any joint, balance is critical. Not only so you don’t fall but balance is one way your body uses to support yourself.
When going up and down the stairs, you are asking each leg to carry your entire body weight for a brief period of time. To keep your balance and allow for this to happen without pain, you need your muscles to all be on the same page. This is what balance is.
If they aren’t on the same page, you will end up with more pain and more difficulty with going up and down the stairs. The good news? There is an easy way to fix this.
This is a great video to start with to improve your single leg balance:
But these alone may not be enough. Many times I find that people have more success with a plan in place. With our 3 Stair Climbing Secrets Program Every Go Getter with Arthritis Needs to Know you will learn exactly what it takes to improve your balance enough to be able to tackle any stairs or hills that come your way!
5. Avoid throwing in the white flag with stairs
Stairs and hills can be frustrating and so painful to our joints if we don’t take the right steps towards success. Cheryl, a client of mine, was going up the stairs one at a time with a death grip on the railing for the past 3 years. She thought this is what life will be like forever.
We began working together and after 5 weeks, she was climbing up the stairs one after the other and was shocked that it finally did not have to take her 30 minutes to navigate a flight of stairs!
Without action, she would have continued to get slower and weaker, to the point where she would’ve had to move her bedroom downstairs! I have seen it happen time and time again.
We have to get in front of our knee pain and realize that we can actually change our pain. Want to know the biggest thing that is standing in your way? What you believe about your knee pain. Most of the time, the things we think that are true about our knee pain can be the very things that are holding us back on activities like the stairs.
What if I told you that I created a guide just for you, explaining each of these 3 myths so that way you don’t have to try to weed through all of the information out there to decide what is true and what isn’t.
Even better? It’s free. Download below.
There are things you can avoid when climbing up and down stairs that can make your experience so much easier and with much less pain! This is true even for those with knee arthritis. Follow the above recommendations can make stairs with knee arthritis much more doable.
Understanding that stairs are not bad for arthritic knees and taking the valid steps to improving ability can make a world of difference. As a physical therapist I have seen it happen time and time again!
Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.
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