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Knee Pain on an Airplane

I recently returned from 10 glorious days of sailing in the Greek Islands.  Unfortunately, the long flight home was a grueling 16 hours in coach.  Let’s face it – airplane flying is not good for the body.  We just aren’t designed to sit in those cramped spaces like that for so long.  During the 11 hour leg from Athens to Newark, NJ, I saw a lot of uncomfortable people – rubbing sore knees, stretching legs and moving around the cabin in a desperate attempt to relieve the discomfort of sitting for such a long period of time.  In the physical therapy world, we have a very technical term for knee pain from prolonged sitting – The “Movie Goers Sign”.  Really.  I am not making this up. A “positive” Movie Goers Sign means that you have knee pain from sitting for too long – essentially from having your knees in a bent position.  The medical community could have easily called this phenomenon the  “Airplane Fliers Sign”.  Same thing.  It is an indication of Patellofemoral Syndrome.

I would love to tell you that I have a magical stretch that you can do on an airplane that will make all the knee discomfort go away immediately. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Stretching your legs while on an airplane does help, but to really get to the root of the problem, you need to strengthen your knees and improve the flexibility of your leg muscles BEFORE you take off on your wonderful vacation. In particular, you need to strengthen and stretch your quadriceps and your hamstring muscles. There are a couple of good quad exercises and hamstring stretches on my website.  Avoid squats and lunges as they can aggravate knee pain with sitting.  My STRONG KNEES DVD is also a good way to prepare yourself for traveling without pain. I recommend doing the DVD at least 2 weeks prior to getting on an airplane.

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4 Responses to “Knee Pain on an Airplane”

  1. Zoraida says:

    What other knee/leg exercises do you recommend besides those on your knee video? I am doing your video most days of the week but I would like some additional ones that are not hard on the knees. I do all on the video except the wall slides, so there I have one less. Also what is another good alternative for the iliotibial band massages, the tennis ball suggestion is just not working for me, my walls are super slippery and I can’t get it to keep still! Thanks!!

  2. Chantal Donnelly says:

    Thanks for your comments Zoraida. There are many other lower limb exercises that you can do to strengthen and prevent knee pain. Riding a bike is a great exercise that doesn’t overtax the knee joints. Here is a link to a video of some additional mat exercises I like.


    As for as the iliotibial band release, try using a foam roller instead of a tennis ball. You can lie on your side with the roller under the tight iliotibial band.

  3. Jenny says:

    Kneecap mobilizations (up and down only, never outside) also helped significantly for me, but don’t think that would be something I would recommend to someone without personally seeing a PT.

  4. Chantal Donnelly says:

    Good point Jenny! Mobilizing the patella (we call them inferior and superior glides) can be very helpful , but best left to the guidance of a physical therapist who is treating you directly. Not something I feel comfortable recommending over the internet. Thanks for the great comments!

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