What a Common Knee Injury Taught me about the Mind-Body Connection

Oh, how badly I handle having my independence hindered in any way. A few weeks ago, I started experiencing knee pain and a feeling of instability with every step I took. Being prone to worrying, especially when my body does something weird, I took a few days to rest.

When it didn’t get better but instead seemed to worsen, my fears intensified. “This is definitely a torn meniscus,” I thought. “I’m going to need surgery.” Or, putting it in context with prior issues over the past year, “I have a herniated disk, for sure. They just didn’t find it last time because they didn’t run the right tests!”

After a full weekend on the couch, surrounded by these thoughts, I went to the doctor and got an official diagnosis. It turns out, nothing is ripped or torn or broken at all — it’s just patellofemeral pain syndrome, aka “runner’s knee.” The downside is there’s no quick, easy fix (there never is, is there?). The upside is, it’s a super common ailment and not the debilitating, surgery-requiring disaster I’d convinced myself it was.

It’s amazing what our brains will do to us. All of my fears that something more serious was wrong caused me to baby the knee while walking, much more than I needed to. Once I confirmed there was no deep, underlying brokenness and forced myself to start walking as normally as I could, the pain started to back off. Between walking funny and just generally focusing on how horrible and terrible it was that my knee was hurting, I spent days making the situation way worse than it needed to be.

Now that I know for sure what’s wrong, the healing process can begin — physical therapy, strengthening exercises for my hips and quads, and “listening to my body” for when it’ll be okay to run again. (Am I the only one who doesn’t think “listen to your body” is the most helpful medical advice?)

This experience got me thinking about the idea of the“mind-body connection,” that our thoughts and mental landscapes manifest in our bodies in a tangible, physical way. While the term is often associated with yoga or mindfulness practices, it’s starting to pop up more and more in health and wellness publications, such as Women’s Health .

Frequently associated with gut health and its strong connection to stress, the “mind-body connection” emphasizes treating the whole person, looking at your thoughts and how they influence your health. It’s often considered part of alternative medicine or “woo woo” type practices.

But should it be? There seems to be a disconnect between the depression and anxiety screening I take every time I go to the doctor and the advice I receive about a physical ailment. They check to see that, yep, I still have anxiety and depression, but don’t consider how that might affect, say, my tendency to freak out about knee pain and assume the worst.

Rather than a box to check, I wish my mental health became a part of the overall conversation of how to heal. After all, lived experience tells me that my mental state was making my pain worse, making it harder to heal.

I’m not an expert, obviously, and I know that wide-scale change in the medical system will take time. As more medical research begins to look at how our minds and our bodies connect, it’s likely that western medicine will start to introduce (or, re-introduce) a better look at the whole picture.

For now, I’m reminded to keep my thoughts in mind as I consider my health and, most importantly, try to figure out what it means to listen to my body as it heals.

Thanks for reading! For more mind-body content, I recommend this essay about my chronic pain condition.

Pittsburgh-based writer & wearer of many metaphorical hats. Making words about self, health, books, travel, and more! She/her.

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