What Causes Runner's Knee?

Runner’s knee is a condition that affects runners, but can affect anyone whose physical activities require repetitive knee bending. Runner’s knee isn’t actually a medical condition; it’s a layman’s term that can refer to any number of knee ailments that cause a similar set of symptoms. Doctors call runner’s knee patellofemoral pain syndrome.

Causes of Runner’s Knee

There are a number of factors that can contribute to the condition known as runner’s knee. If you run, cycle, walk, jump rope or perform any other physical activities that require you to bend your knees a lot, you’re at risk for runner’s knee. Overuse of the knee can stretch the joint’s tendons and irritate the nerves of the kneecap, causing pain. Here are some other causes of runner’s knee:

  • A direct blow to the knee, such as a fall
  • Foot ailments, such as fallen arches, can weaken the muscles and tendons of the knee
  • Weak hamstrings and quadriceps
  • Misalignment of the kneecap or of other bones in the leg

Symptoms of Runner’s Knee

Though there are a number of causes of runner’s knee, the symptoms remain similar no matter what the cause. If you have runner’s knee, you’ll experience pain in the knee every time you bend it, even when you’re just sitting down. The pain will be localized around the kneecap, behind the kneecap, or at the juncture of the kneecap and the thighbone.

Walking downhill or down stairs intensifies the pain of runner’s knee. Your knee will swell and you may experience a grinding sensation in the joint. Your knee will pop frequently.

Your doctor will diagnose runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome, by performing a thorough physical exam. He’ll ask questions about your physical activities and about any accidents you may have had, which may have damaged the knee. If necessary, your doctor will take X-rays, MRIs or other diagnostic images to determine the extent of the damage to your knee. If your runner’s knee is bad enough, you may need surgery.

Treating Runner’s Knee

Most cases of runner’s knee are mild enough to heal without surgery. During the recovery process, you’ll need to rest your knee as much as possible and compress it with a bandage to support its function. You should keep the knee elevated when sitting or lying down, since bending the knee at this time can aggravate your condition. You’ll need to ice the knee every few hours for the first few days of recovery, to reduce inflammation in the joint.

Your doctor may prescribe pain medications, or you can take over the counter anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen. Your doctor may also recommend stretching and strengthening exercises to help you regain your full range of movement in the injured knee. During your recovery period, refrain from normal physical activity, try to keep your weight off the knee as much as possible, and perform only those exercises recommended by your doctor. If your runner’s knee is the result of orthopedic problems, your doctor may recommend you see a podiatrist and obtain custom arch supports.


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