How to Kick Into High Gear Against Runner’s Knee Pain

Pain associated with running can contribute to some forms of overuse injuries. Constantly subjecting the structures holding the joint to mechanical stress as with running, without allowing adequate time for recovery, is a recipe for developing knee pain. For example, excessive jumping, running, or deep lunges are all potential factors for knee pain. However, knee pain for runners is rarely a “do or die” scenario. In fact, many knee injuries with runners, if detected early, can easily resolved with proper treatment.

Understanding Running Knee Pain

Pain associated with running can contribute to some forms of overuse injuries. Constantly subjecting the structures holding the joint to mechanical stress as with running, without allowing adequate time for recovery, is a recipe for developing knee pain. For example, excessive jumping, running, or deep lunges are all potential factors for knee pain. However, knee pain for runners is rarely a “do or die” scenario. In fact, many knee injuries with runners, if detected early, can easily resolved with proper treatment.

Statistically, runners who consistently run over 30 miles in a week are more prone to developing knee pain. A sign of a potential problem with runners is when a runner starts to feel knee pain after running a shorter distance on subsequent runs.

The kneecap or patella is a small bone that burdens a complex joint function. It is subject to displacement and friction; two common causes of knee pain in runners. A muscle imbalance in the lower extremity is a common factor contributing to knee pain with runners. The meniscal cartilage separating the distal femur (thigh bone) and the proximal tibia (shin bone) is stressed and compressed with running. The hard marble-like articular cartilage that covers the ends of both of these bones and the back of the patella are vulnerable to injury based on activity, age and work volume.  Over time, with insufficient rest or excessive workloads, the articular cartilage and the menisci are susceptible to degenerative changes.

Bad shoes, especially ones that contribute to excessive supination or pronation with running creates a discrepancies with the normal synergistic muscle stress on the patella.  This change in “patella tracking” is a typical factor with knee pain.

Diagnoses such as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), chondromalacia, Jumpers knee, patellofemoral tendonitis, ITB syndrome, pes anserine tendonitis, distal quadriceps strains and bursitis are common conditions associated with knee pain in runners.

Signs & Symptoms of Knee pain associated with running

  • Perception of pain after running or with prolonged standing.
  • Knee aching and discomfort with rest.
  • Difficulty bending the knee joint past 70 degrees after running.
  • Any point tenderness near the patella or knee joint lines.
  • Perceiving a popping sensation with knee flexion.
  • Any swelling within or around the knee, which increases with running.
  • Clinical evaluation of a Quadriceps angle or “Q Angle” greater than 15 degrees.
  • A lateral displacement of the patella when compared to the other knee joint.
  • A grinding or crepitation behind the kneecap with volitionally bending and straighten of the joint.

Professional Treatment for knee pain

  • Elevate your legs, “rollout” the front & sides of your thighs and then ice your knees immediately after running.
  • Practice and embrace a lower extremity flexibility program, period.
  • Be consistent with a quadriceps and hamstring strengthening routine that is completely painfree for the knees and does not allow the knee to bend past 90.
  • Spend the money to wear running shoes that fit properly with the necessary support.  Your local running store can easily be your MVP when it comes to avoiding running injuries.
  • Avoid running every day.  Mix in other sports such as swimming, elliptical trainer and biking to improve your fitness without injuring your knees.  “Cross train, cross train, cross train!”
  • Minimize your distance on paved roads.  Find golf courses and off-road trails to reduce the compressive forces on your entire body.
  • Ingest more anti-oxidant containing foods such as fruits and vegetables as a natural way to consume anti-inflammatories.
  • Knee straps, shoe insoles and knee sleeves may prove to be helpful at reducing knee pain with running.
  • A thorough evaluation by a physical therapist or runner-friendly physician is a great way to rule-out potential sources of knee pain such as a leg length discrepancy, plantar fasciitis, hip arthritis, low back misalignment, excessive ankle pronation, cartilage tear or tendon abnormalities.

Asking the Right Questions like a Pro

Here’s what a smart pro athlete would ask his/her sports medicine specialists to ensure a fast and safe return to sports:

  1. Is this injury related to my running?
  2. What type of exercise or therapy can I do to minimize or eliminate this pain and avoid surgery?
  3. Do I need further diagnostic tests to assess this injury?
  4. Are my running shoes a factor to my pain?  If yes, which running shoes would you recommend?
  5. Do I need to be concerned with any long-term issues with this condition?

Elite Sports Medicine Tips from Mike Ryan

  • Minimal Miles – Run less while your improve the factors that are contributing to the pain. Common sense is priceless at this point of the injury management plan.
  • Minimize the Meds – It’s easy to pop the pills.  Treat knee pain the smart way by eating healthy and following my advice.  Your stomach will thank you.
  • Drain Your Legs – After every run, elevate your legs while pumping your ankles to drain the waste products and excessive fluids from your your legs for at least 5 minutes.  Start your recovery NOW.
  • Do What Made You Sore – An easy short run on a soft surface the day after a hard run will help reduce muscle soreness.

How Professional Athletes Successfully Treat Knee ITB Syndrome

Running With ITB Syndrome

Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), or Illiotibial band tendonitis, is a frustrating and troubling injury.  Because of it’s common mechanism of injury involves repetitive knee flexion and extension, it is often associated with runners.

Personally, ITB syndrome has proved to be one of the most difficult injury that I’ve dealt with as an athlete.

The IT band is a sheath of dense fibrous connective tissue which originates on its upper end to the tensor fascia latae muscle on the upper outer thigh.  The ITB extends down the lateral thigh and inserts into the outer surfaces of both the fibula and tibia bones of the shin. The function of the IT band is to help extend the knee joint, externally rotating the upper leg along with abducting of the hip.

Illiotibial band tendonitis is usually a result of the ITB being inflamed with excess friction of the ITB passing over the lateral epicondyle (the bony ridge on the outer distal thigh bone) of the femur (thigh bone).  With a repetitive knee movement like running or secondary trauma, the rubbing of this tissue over the hard bony ridge will result in inflammation and movement discomfort.

Signs and Symptoms of Runner’s Knee/Iliotibial Band Syndrome

  • Pain on the outside of the knee above, at or below the lateral knee joint line.
  • An increased tenderness with palpation(note: palpation is a method of clinical examination using gentle pressure of the fingers to detect growths, changes and unusual tissue reactions)of the iliotibial band.
  • An inability to squat through a full range of motion because of lateral distal thigh pain and weakness.
  • Knee pain normally aggravated by running, particularly downhill.
  • Pain during flexion or extension of the knee with both the foot on and off the ground.

How to Professionally Treat Iliotibial Band Syndrome

  • Apply cold therapy with ice bags, ice massage or ice bath.
  • Rest the knee and lower extremity from running, quad strengthening and painful activities.
  • Implement self myofascial mobilization and massage techniques such as rolling the thigh, lateral thigh and calves.
  • Aggressive flexibility of the IT band and the entire lower extremity including the ankle, great toe and low back.
  • Lateral knee and thigh massage is an effective treatment to reduce painful ITB tightness.
  • Assessing leg length and foot biomechanics bilaterally.  It is common to trace the source of lateral knee pain to a leg length difference or excessive pronation involving one leg.(Pronation means that the feet roll inward and cause the ankles to turn in.)
  • A thorough analysis of the athlete’s training program

Asking the Right Questions With Lateral Knee Pain

When faced with runner’s knee or Illiotibial band tendonitis, the wise professional athlete who wants to safely return to his/her sport and avoid further injury will ask his sports medicine specialist the following questions:

  1. Are you certain of the diagnosis?
  2. Do I need an MRI to rule out any other problems?
  3. What are the best options with treating this injury?
  4. What can I expect with this injury for the next 2, 4 and 6 weeks?
  5. Who do you consider to be the expert knee rehab specialist in this area?
  6. Will I be given a detailed rehabilitation protocol to direct my rehab for both my therapist and me?

Tips For Successful Iliotibial Band Treatment

  • Minimize the Damage – Illiotibial Band Syndrome is not an injury that you can just grit your teeth and run through.  Be smart early and avoid creating additional injuries.
  • Look Elsewhere – IT band tendonitis is often a result of a mechanical problem elsewhere.  Look above: hip & low back…..or below:…arch, ankle or great toe.  Don’t forget to look at your shoes!
  • Ice is Your Friend – It’s a reality check:  Ice hurts but it’s exactly what you need for this injury.  The Pro’s will tell you that ice is their best teammate.  Stop complaining and do what you know you need….ICE and lots of it.
  • Lighten up, Coach! – An athlete suffering from IT Band Syndrome is usually training very hard.  A common theme with this injury is that you do not have enough recovery time during the week or you are progressing too aggressively with your workouts.  Getting your coach, which sometimes refers to YOU, to work with you on this is a key step in getting this painful injury in your rearview mirror. A thorough analysis of your athlete’s workout plan is a great start.
  • How Long? – This may be one of the toughest injuries to put a recovery timeframe on.  The downtime from lateral knee pain associated with IT Band Syndrome is significantly reduced if you treat the injury early and modify painful activities while treating the injury as noted above.