Knee pain from running (also known as patellofemoral knee syndrome or runner’s knee) is a condition that usually affects runners. It likewise strikes other athletes who are engaged in sports that involve a lot of knee bending (e.g., cyclists, skiers and jumpers).
Runner’s knee occurs when the kneecap (patella) shifts out of place. Instead of resting in the femoral groove and sliding easily up and down when the knee is used, the patella tracks incorrectly over the femoral groove.
As a result, it irritates the femoral groove and damages the cartilage beneath the patella, leading to knee pain. See our knee diagram to better understand knee anatomy.
The causes of knee pain from running include:
- Overuse – Repeated bending of the knee can eventually lead to kneecap nerve damage. The latter, in turn, can cause runner’s knee.
- Direct trauma to the knee – A fall or a blow to the knee can shift the patella out of place, resulting in runner’s knee.
- Bone misalignment – When the bones are misaligned (slightly out of their correct position), physical stress ends up being distributed unevenly throughout the body. Some parts of the body end up bearing too much weight, leading to joint pain and damage.
- Foot problems – Flat-footed people are more prone to runner’s knee. When a flat-footed person takes a step, the arches of his feet collapse. This outcome, in turn, stretches the muscles and tendons.
- Weak thigh muscles – When your thigh muscles are weak, force ends up getting concentrated on your knees. This outcome, in turn, strains the knee joints, causing pain.
The symptoms of knee pain while running are as follows:
- Pain behind the knee or around the kneecap, especially where the thighbone and the kneecap meet.
- Knee pain when bending the knee (e.g., when walking, squatting, kneeling, running or sitting).
- Knee pain that intensifies when walking downstairs or downhill.
- Swelling of the knee.
- Cracking or popping sounds coming from the knee during movement.
A doctor diagnoses knee pain from running by using the following methods:
- Physical examination – Your doctor will check your knee for swelling, pain, tenderness, warmth and visible bruising. He will move your leg and knee joint to determine how far you can move your lower leg, as well as to listen for popping, grinding or clicking sounds.
- Imaging tests – X-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provide both cross-sectional and real-time images of the structures within and around your knee (e.g., bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles and cartilages). Such images will help your doctor find out if you are suffering from runner’s knee.
Below are the treatments for knee pain when running:
- RICE method for injuries – RICE simply means rest, ice application, compression and elevation. This form of treatment helps relieve pain and inflammation.
- Medication – Your doctor may prescribe medication to help relieve pain. Examples of such medications are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are paracetamol, ibuprofen and mefenamic acid.
- Physical therapy – Your doctor may advise you to regularly perform these exercises that will help ease pain, improve your balance and strengthen your knee joints and muscles.
- Surgery – Surgery is used to treat severe cases of runner’s knee. A surgeon could either take out damaged knee cartilage or return the patella to its correct position.
As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Prevention remains the best treatment for knee pain from running. Below are some tips on how to prevent runner’s knee:
- Always wear protective gear or preventive knee braces before exercising or doing sports. Replace damaged or worn-out protective gear immediately.
- Never forget to perform warm-up and cool-down exercises.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight can strain your knee joints, causing knee pain.
- Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water every day. Water helps lubricate your joints.
- Consult your doctor immediately as soon as you experience the symptoms of runner’s knee.
- Always follow your doctor’s orders. Never self-medicate.
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If the knee pain is caused by a minor injury, try ice packs and heating pads. You can also take over-the-counter painkillers, like Tylenol or Advil. However, if the pain is severe and/or lasts for a few days, do not hesitate to visit your doctor. Your doctor can determine the cause of your problem. Only then can the correct treatment routine begin. Some knee injuries require surgery.