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Knee-Deep in Injuries

Baby boomers eager to hang on to their youth are hurting their knees more. But new surgical techniques are getting folks back on their feet faster.

November 02, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | Times Staff Writer

For Richard Glanz, the mind is willing, but the knees are not.

He first learned this on a basketball court years ago when he severely tore cartilage in his left knee driving to the basket. He repeated this lesson several more times, ripping the connective tissues in his knee once again while playing basketball and twice while playing baseball.

In all, Glanz, 43, has endured five knee surgeries--four on his left knee, one on his right. His first four were arthroscopic, and the last one, the worst by far, was the complete reconstruction of his left knee's anterior cruciate ligament in January 1997.

"Every morning I wake up, [and] it's snap, crackle and pop. It's never going to be normal again," says Glanz, a commercial real estate developer, who hopes to return to the squash and tennis courts soon.

Each year, about 5 million Americans seek treatment for bad knees, which are rivaled only by the lower back as the chief complaint among aging baby boomers, according to orthopedic doctors.

The rise in knee woes can be traced to America's compulsion with fitness and an active lifestyle, doctors explain. A generation ago, it seemed most adults' idea of exercise was mowing the lawn or chasing the kids around the house. Not surprisingly, these often overweight adults suffered the physical consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, most notably heart attacks, doctors say.

But in the last 20 years, Americans have dramatically changed their exercise habits. A growing body of research on the medical benefits of fitness and nutrition, recommendations by doctors to "get some exercise" and a youth-obsessed culture, spearheaded by baby boomers, have fueled the get-fit revolution, according to fitness observers.

The Downside to Better Health

An estimated 81.3 million Americans engage in fitness, sports or outdoor activities at least three times a week--more than at any other time in U.S. history, according to the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise.

It's a no-brainer that all those people jogging, skiing and playing tennis translate into more injuries. Orthopedic doctors question whether the current rise in knee injuries is excessive, even given the larger number of sports enthusiasts. Too many recreational athletes, they say, particularly those over 40, unnecessarily risk injury by throwing themselves haphazardly into sports.

Many baby boomers fail to consider that as the body grows older, the knee ligaments--the tough band of tissues that holds the bones together and helps to control joint movement--become stiffer and more brittle. And more prone to injury.

The older the athlete, the more important conditioning and stretching become, doctors say. The two techniques are the best way to prevent, or reduce the severity of, a sports injury. But whether it's hubris or laziness, not everyone does as they should.

"The biggest problem we have is with guys over 40 who think it's still like their college days when they rolled out of bed Saturday morning after a night of drinking and played basketball all day and they were fine," said Gary Losse, founder of the Oasis Sports Clinic in San Diego and a former team doctor for the San Diego Chargers.

"They're unprepared, and that's when they get the ligament injuries," Losse said.

Boomer athletes also make themselves vulnerable to knee injury by their choice of activity. Lower-risk sports like swimming or cycling produce fewer injuries. But boomers who have clung to those higher-risk sports of their youth--football, basketball and soccer--are rolling the dice with each passing year.

These latter sports, which require jumping, cutting and pivoting, can wreak havoc with aging knees, doctors say. Many recreational athletes realize the increased risks but still hang on to to their favorite sport.

"It's your personality, it's your identity, and you make great friendships," said Glanz, who still hikes and skis with his family.

A Choice Between Surgery and Sports

The price sometimes paid is a visit to the doctor's office or emergency room. What happens next depends upon the person's age, the extent of his injury and the willingness to change his lifestyle, doctors say.

In some cases, a person can avoid surgery if he is willing to accept the limitations of a damaged knee. But the trade-off may be abandoning most sports, wearing a knee brace and committing to a regimen of exercises to strengthen the knee.

But doctors are discovering few will make such a bargain.

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