Runner’s Knee: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
“Runner’s knee” is a very common term heard frequently on tracks and training fields, and it applies to athletes of all ages. But what is runner’s knee, exactly? Is it a small price to pay for an athletic lifestyle, or is it a serious ailment that can interfere with sports performance and possibly even undermine long term health? How can you tell if the pain you’re feeling is runner’s knee and not something else? And most important, how can you treat this pain when it flares up?
What is Runner’s Knee?
Runner’s knee is actually a very generic term used to describe a sensation of sharp intermittent pain around the kneecap. This pain can come from any of several sources, but it occurs very commonly among runners and athletes who subject the knee to constant bending. Cyclists often suffer from runner’s knee pain, and so do athletes who engage in frequent jumping, like gymnasts and basketball players.
Some of the most common symptoms of runners include the following.
1. Pain in and under the knee cap while the knee is bending or in motion.
2. Pain around the area of the knee cap regardless of the state of motion in the leg.
3. Sharp pain around the top of the kneecap where the knee meets with the thigh bone, or femur.
4. Any swelling that seems concentrated around the point of the knee.
5. Grinding, popping sensations or pain that gets worse while walking downhill.
There are several different and mostly unrelated disorders that can bring on the pain of runner’s knee, including any of the issues below:
1. Striking the knee against something. If you’ve recently fallen on your knee or banged your knee into a hard surface, the pain of runner’s knee may occur immediately after the trauma, or sometime later in a way that may feel unrelated. Sometimes it takes a while for the nerves under the kneecap to register damage or irritation.
2. Overuse. Bending the knee over and over again on a regular basis in a repetitive motion can cause pain in two forms: inflamed nerves under the knee cap, or overstretching in the tendons that connect the bones of the knee to the muscles of the leg.
3. Fallen arches and over-protonation. If you have flat feet (a low arch or no arch under the instep of your foot), your knee may be more susceptible to the pain of repeated stress and bending. This is also true if you’re an over-pronator, meaning your foot rolls out to the side as you walk. Any kind of misalignment in the feet can have an impact on the performance of the knee, especially when one motion is repeated over and over.
4. Weakness in the thigh muscles. In a similar fashion, weak muscles in the thighs can cause misalignment in the placement of body weight and the force applied to the knee during activity. Runner’s knee caused by leg muscle weakness is also sometimes called patellofemoral pain syndrome.
Treating the Pain of Runner’s Knee
The only way to get an accurate diagnosis and make sure you’re on the right path to recovery is by going to a doctor and having a X-ray or scan performed on the area of pain. Until this happens, there’s no way to know for sure that a simple flair-up of pain and inflammation isn’t actually caused by something worse, like a damaged tendon or a stress fracture.
But in the meantime, there are several ways to reduce the pain of runner’s knee and give minor damage a chance to heal on its own. Fortunately, most cases of runner’s knee clear up in a relatively short time without formal medical treatment. Try these moves to speed the process.
1. Remember the rules of RICE. Start by letting the knee rest and giving it a break. Stop the activity of the moment and spend a few days reducing the weight and pressure placed on the knee joint.
2. Apply an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables to the knee for about 20 minutes at a time. Do this once every three to four hours for a few days or until the pain is completely gone.
3. Compress and elevate. Wrap a snug ace bandage or compression bandage around the knee to keep excess fluid from building up, and when you’re sitting or lying down, keep the knee above the level of the heart.
4. Consider yoga and stretching exercises to limber and align and the tendons and muscles that meet in the knee area. Any static or low impact exercise that builds strength in the thigh muscles can also help alleviate problems due to leg weakness.
5. Pay closer attention to your gait and your shoes. Off the shelf orthotic supports can prop up and stabilize your arch, and if you have them custom made, they’ll be specifically designed to help your properly distribute your body weight as you walk.
Preventing Runner’s Knee
Most mild cases of runner’s knee tend to clear up after a few days, so be patient and give the knee time to fully recover before jumping back into an intense training routine. To keep your runner’s knee symptoms from flaring up again, or to prevent them in the first place, take a few simple steps to protect your knee joint.
Start by always stretching properly before exercise and working hard to keep the muscles of the upper leg strong. The use of Kbands resistance bands while training can help build strength in the muscles without increasing stress on the joints. Meanwhile, watch out for anything that generates high impact on the knees and feet. Try not to run on concrete, or to engage in the same repetitive bending and jumping workouts too many times per week. And make sure you invest in appropriate gear. Runners should buy new shoes after every five hundred miles, and athletes in every sport should try not to engage in sustained high impact activity using worn out shoes or no shoes at all.