The term runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), is a common condition occurring in people who experience knee pain after running. Although not typically debilitating, this condition can cause significant pain in the knee joint which worsens over time if corrective measures are not taken. In the majority of cases, when pain is addressed quickly, simple treatments and/or alterations encourage marked improvements while allowing you to continue with or return to the sport of running without an extensive delay.
Runner’s Knee Has Specific Characteristics
PFPS is characterized by a specific type of knee pain which originates below the kneecap itself, often on the upper end where the thigh muscles and the kneecap meet. Pain is typically felt when the knee is in a bent position, whether while running, walking, bending, or even sitting. Inflammation is also typically present. When symptoms first begin, you may only notice knee pain after running, but continuing with the same workout routine without making adjustments will likely lead to a steady increase in the frequency of symptoms, until eventually, you experience pain even in sedentary situations.
Numerous Factors Are Responsible for PFPS
Knee pain after running is attributed to a number of causative factors, including:
- Misalignment of the kneecap, or patella, which forces your knee to bear weight unevenly.
- Weak thigh muscles, which may be the underlying factor behind a misaligned patella. The vastus lateralis, or most lateral quadricep muscle, is often stronger than the other three quad muscles, and can pull the patella laterally as it overpowers the weaker muscles.
- Fallen arches or overpronation, known as flat feet. Under the impact of running, the arches of the feet can collapse, causing extreme impact on the knee joint due to excessive stretching of the muscles and tendons.
- Overuse of the knees, as repetitive bending can irritate the nerve endings behind the kneecap.
Those who choose to have a professional diagnosis for their knee pain after running will typically undergo a physical exam as well as x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, etc. However, research has shown no obvious structural damage is typically present with PFPS; rather, the condition is described as a chronic stimulation of the nerve endings in the knee joint, resulting in pain and inflammation.
Allow Your Knee to Heal to Avoid Further Damage
Although consulting with your doctor is always wise with any injury, in the case of PFPS, treatment can often be carried out at home with no medical intervention. First and foremost, any activity which you know causes knee pain should be ceased to avoid further irritation or damage to the knee itself. If your PFPS has become so severe that you are unable to run at all without experiencing knee pain after running, than a complete break from running will be in order to allow your knee to properly heal.
Many runners, however, are able to run for a certain amount of time or for a certain distance without experiencing any knee pain after running. If, for example, pain begins after 30 minutes of running, you may be able to safely run for 20 minutes during a session. Some runners may be able to run every other day, but not on consecutive days. The general idea is to run as much as your body allows, but not push beyond what is comfortable, to keep your knees accustomed to running while still allowing natural healing to occur. After a few weeks, try increasing the amount of time you spend running to see if your pain limits have improved.
Simple Treatment Measures Provide Pain Relief
In addition to adjusting your running schedule, any or all of the following are likely to provide relief from the symptoms of PFPS:
- Resting your knee throughout the day; elevate your knee while sitting or lying down to reduce inflammation.
- Applying ice packs to your knee for 20-30 minutes, 3 or 4 times each day, until pain subsides.
- Providing extra knee support with an elastic bandage or strap, especially while running.
- Stretching and strengthening your thigh muscles to encourage proper alignment and tracking of your kneecap.
- Wearing comfortable running shoes with arch supports to help reduce pain resulting from flat feet.
- Avoiding running on concrete or on uneven ground.
- Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help reduce inflammation.
Although knee pain after running is likely to worsen if ignored, only extreme cases require medical intervention such as surgery to fully heal. The key with PFPS is to listen to your body and never push yourself beyond a comfortable amount of running. Remember, your knee cannot heal when you are experiencing pain. Try cross training activities such as bicycling or swimming to stay fit while in recovery, or just to mix up your fitness routine to lessen the stress on those knee joints.