What is Runner’s Knee?

As you’ve probably guessed by its name, runner’s knee is a common injury that affects runners. Although it’s not just limited to them. It can affect anyone who participates in activities that places repeated stress on the knee joint. Some examples include skiing, biking, volleyball, netball, soccer, hiking and walking. 

Runner’s knee isn’t a specific type of injury. Instead, it’s a broad term used to describe the pain associated with the kneecap, also known as the patella. Doctors and Physiotherapists will commonly refer to it as patellofemoral pain syndrome. 

Anyone is susceptible to developing runner’s knee. However, the Harvard Medical School found that it tends to occur more in women than men. So what causes it?

Causes

Runner’s knee is an overuse injury. It’s brought on from repetitive and excessive strain to the knee joint. The pain is caused by irritation and inflammation of the tissues surrounding the knee cap. 

The tissue surrounding the kneecap has a certain level of stress that it’s used to handling. When the level of stress goes beyond its usual tolerance, runner’s knee can occur. It acts as a warning that a more serious tissue injury may occur. Essentially it means that you’re doing too much, too frequently for your knee joint to handle. 

Runner’s knee can happen to anyone, but it’s sometimes contributed to by other factors including the following: 

  • Trauma to the kneecap – from a fall or blow 
  • Foot biomechanics (“flat feet”)
  • Worn-out running shoes
  • Weak or unbalanced quadriceps (thigh muscles) 
  • Other biomechanical issues causing misalignment of the kneecap

Symptoms

How do you know if you have runner’s knee? Most describe the pain associated with runner’s knee as a dull, aching pain around or behind the kneecap. Other symptoms can include a grinding feel or clicking sound when bending and straightening the knee and a kneecap that is tender to touch.

Diagnosis

Runner’s knee is formally diagnosed by a Doctor or a Physiotherapist. It’s done by carrying out a physical examination and discussing your exercise and health history. Other investigations such as imaging (xray, MRI etc) may be warranted depending on the individual circumstances.

Treatment

If you start to experience pain you think might be from runner’s knee, you should seek the assistance of your Physiotherapist. In the meantime you can try strategies such as RICE to help relieve pain and swelling. 

  • Rest – As soon as you start to feel pain or discomfort, you should modify activities that cause pain. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing everything, but you should avoid pushing through pain until you have a plan with your Physiotherapist.
  • Ice – May help reduce pain and swelling in the acute phase of an injury. Place a towel to the skin before applying ice or a cold pack to the area. You can ice the area for up to 30 minutes at a time.
  • Compression – To help with swelling and stability, you can use a compressive garment. Make sure it is comfortable and not too tight.
  • Elevation – While applying ice, sitting, or lying down, elevate your knee using pillow. Try to keep the area above the level of your heart, this will help to reduce swelling.

Anti inflammatory medications may also be appropriate, but you should seek the advice of a medical professional, and follow all instructions regarding the use of medications before using them.  

What can you expect once you see a physiotherapist?

Physiotherapy

One of the most effective treatment options for runner’s knee is exercise rehabilitation. It’s a proven method for significantly reducing pain and improving overall function. In most cases, patients can return to their normal physical activities after 6 – 12 weeks of treatment. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to exercise at all, but your physiotherapist will give advice on what exercises won’t hinder your rehabilitation. The specific rehabilitation program for your knee will focus on strengthening the hip, thigh and knee muscles. This will help to improve overall strength and mechanics of your knee joint.

Orthotics

If your foot biomechanics is a factor in developing runner’s knee, then orthotics may help. Everyone is different, meaning that more often than not, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ orthotics you can buy from your local chemist won’t always work. At QSMC, we have podiatrists from Queensland Foot Centres consulting from our clinics. The podiatry team will assess your individual needs and prescribe orthotics in-line with your specific requirements and only if they’re appropriate. Often upgrading a worn out pair of shoes, or changing to a different style of shoe, is all that is needed.

Taping or Bracing

Knee taping or braces can have a significant impact on reducing knee pain. This treatment method works by offloading stress from the knee by improving support. Tapes and braces act as a short term pain reliever for runners. They should not be used as a long term solution. Our Physiotherapists can provide knee taping and advise appropriate knee braces.

Prevention

We know that pain that prevents you from doing the activities you love is frustrating. You can prevent the development of runner’s knee by not overstressing your knee. You can minimise this risk by: 

  • Keeping the muscles of your legs strong. Including a specific strengthening program as part of your training program can help decrease your risk of developing injuries.
  • Increasing your physical activity intensity and frequency gradually
  • Wearing supportive running shoes and replacing them when they are worn out
  • Keeping a healthy body weight

Experiencing some pain and discomfort is a normal part of a training program. However, this pain should be mild and resolve quickly. If it doesn’t, it may be an indication that it’s something more serious and could get worse if you try and push through it. If you’re experiencing pain that prevents you from day-to-day life or won’t improve, we recommend seeing a Physiotherapist. 

You can contact our reception team by calling 07 3891 2000 to book in an appointment with one of our Physios.

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