Pain Management

This Fun Water Exercise Healed One Woman’s Chronic Knee Pain

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Darlene Brooks Thomas woke up in her hotel room, happy and ready to return home after a fun weekend with her girlfriends. As she stepped out of bed, her left knee buckled and her leg felt like a cooked noodle, completely unable to support her. She fell to the floor.

As she lay on the carpet, she thought about the replacement surgery she’d had on her other knee three years prior, and her long, drawn-out recovery. Doctors had said she’d likely have to get the second knee replaced, and Darlene felt panic rising as she realized that time may have come. I can’t go through that again, she thought. I’ve got to do something.

Barely Getting By

“In my 40s, I suffered a knee injury in a car accident. I walked with a cane for a couple of weeks and thought I was healed. Then in my early 50s, the pain returned and I went to an orthopedic surgeon, where I learned that my meniscus was shredded and my knee joint was bone on bone.

“I tried to push through — I didn’t want to let the pain slow me down. I saw my doctors consistently for three years and was occasionally given steroid shots. When the pain and swelling got so bad that I couldn’t leave my apartment, the orthopedic surgeon said arthritis had developed under my kneecap and surgery was inevitable. I underwent a total knee replacement and extensive physical therapy. It was grueling, and I knew I’d never want to go through it again.

“About three years ago, I moved to California. The state has amazing options for staying fit, but after the knee replacement, exercise was difficult, and I shied away. My knee continued getting stiffer. Worse, soon after I moved, the pain started to invade my entire body. My primary care doctor ordered X-rays and found arthritis had developed in my left knee, both hips, and my neck. He referred me to an orthopedic doctor who prescribed heavy doses of anti-inflammatories. But many medications give me digestive issues, so I wanted to find another way to fight the degeneration.

Relief at Last

“In looking for a way to improve my left knee and avoid another surgery, I relied on what I’ve always known: It’s important to keep moving so joints stay mobile. I knew I needed to find some type of exercise that would work for me. After researching my options, I found that water provides the best low-impact workout. Since I wasn’t a strong swimmer, I decided to try water aerobics. I love the water and thought it would be easy to maneuver in the pool without hurting my knees.

“I found a class at a gym close to home. I wanted to be sure I’d be comfortable, physically and emotionally, so before my first class, I took a tour of the facility and saw the class in action. I realized there’s no vanity there. Just people of all body shapes and sizes staying fit.

“The first class was a blast. There was great music and fun banter. I immediately loved it. I started going at least three times a week. At first, there was a little stiffness, but minimal pain, and I began to notice that I could feel the difference in both pain and mobility if I missed a day or two in the water. Now, I make a point of being in the water every day. I’ve even added resistance weights and finned gloves to make the most of my workouts.

“Today, I’m stronger from my shoulders down to my ankles, and I’ve gained flexibility and muscle tone I didn’t expect from working out in the water. I find myself doing high leg kicks just because I can; in the past, I couldn’t use my leg that way.

“The best part is that the workouts have slowed down the degeneration in my joints. I made an appointment to have my knee looked at by the orthopedist — just to check in on that second knee — and MRI scans showed that there has been no additional deterioration over the two years I’ve been swimming. The arthritis hadn’t worsened! The doctor told me I don’t need to be seen again unless I have issues. Water aerobics is all the treatment I need — it has taken away so much of the pain and given me pride.

“When I first got the diagnosis of bone degeneration, I was devastated. But now, when I look in the mirror, I feel like I’m aging in reverse. At 60, I’m the youngest person in my water aerobics class, and many people think I’m much younger. Most important, I’ve strengthened my knees. I look forward to taking trips with my husband and getaways with my girlfriends for years to come.” 

Darlene Brooks Thomas
Rudy Meyers

This story originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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