Knee pain impairs otherwise-healthy college students: study shows they are less active, report worse mental health

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

NEW ORLEANS – Knee pain doesn’t just plague older people – it can slow down college students too. Young adults with patellofemoral pain (PFP) – often called “runner’s knee” or “jumper’s knee” – are less physically active and mentally healthy than those without knee pain, according to research being presented at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) 69th Clinical Symposia & Expo. The study is the first to use activity trackers to objectively capture how a chronic joint condition affects physical activity and relate it to mental health in otherwise-healthy people.


Even though their pain was relatively mild (3 out of 10), students with PFP said they had less energy and were more likely to feel blue. The research also showed that physical health or emotional problems interfered with social activities in students with knee pain.


“We were surprised to see just how closely related physical performance is to well-being,” said Susan Saliba, PhD, ATC, PT, senior author of the study and advisor of Andrea Baellow, MEd, ATC, and Neal Glaviano, PhD, ATC, who conducted the study at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “The next step is to determine whether the pain causes people to be less physically active or if feeling less mentally healthy results in reduced physical activity.”


The study included 20 healthy college students and 20 with PFP (75 percent of both groups were women), all of whom wore an activity tracker for 14 days. Those with PFP averaged 8,636 steps a day, 4,533 fewer than those without knee pain. The students also completed the 12-Item Short Form Health Survey, which assesses physical and emotional well-being: the lower the score, the less physically and mentally healthy the person feels. Students with PFP had significantly lower scores than healthy students. For example, in social functioning (social activities and relationships), healthy people scored 100 and PFP students scored 90 and for “role emotional” healthy students scored 100 and PFP students scored 97.


PFP – pain in or around the kneecap – is a common knee problem, affecting about 1 in 4 people, particularly adolescents and young adults, and is more common in girls and women. PFP can be triggered by stressing the knee in physical activity such as jogging and squatting. Various factors can increase the risk, such as weakness in the core, loose joints and wide hips.


“Our study suggests that choosing to do less physical activity – taking the elevator instead of the stairs, not participating in recreational activities – is profoundly related to a person’s emotional or social well-being,” said Saliba. “The root cause of PFP is individual, and athletic trainers can help sufferers to determine the cause and then treat it, such as working to strengthen the core or muscles that support the knee. That can help them be more active, which clearly is a key aspect of mental health.”