Do You Have Runner’s Knee? Learn the Symptoms—and Solutions
Runner's knee is pain around the knee—whether you run or not. Learn the symptoms, treatments, and how to prevent it.
When your knee hurts
Maybe you’ve just started jogging and are noticing a dull ache in your knee. Or perhaps you’ve been clocking lots of hours riding your bike and can’t seem to ditch the pain around your knee. Like many other active people, you might have runner’s knee.
Runner’s knee is one of the most common injuries seen in active individuals. It may account for as much as 25 to 40 percent of all knee problems seen by sports injury doctors, according to a report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Here’s the scoop on runner’s knee causes, symptoms, and treatments, as well as how it’s diagnosed and what you can do to prevent it.
What is runner’s knee?
Runner’s knee is medically known as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS). It is a broad term that describes pain in the front of the knee and around the patella (aka the kneecap). The patella is where the knee connects with the lower end of the thigh bone (femur).
It’s often known as runner’s knee, or even jumper’s knee, because it’s common in runners. But it’s frequently diagnosed in all types of athletes—and in nonathletic people too.
The pain can make it difficult to run or perform athletic activities. It can also make it hard to climb stairs, kneel, or perform lots of everyday activities.
Runner’s knee causes
Runner’s knee can be caused by a defect in the structure of your knee or by the way you walk or run. Some things that can trigger this knee pain include:
- Overuse and strain on the knee
- Weak thigh or hip muscles
- Tight hamstrings
- Tight Achilles tendons
- Muscle imbalances
- Kneecap misalignment
- Injury to the knee
- Foot problems, like fallen arches or overpronation
- Poor shoe support
Runner’s knee symptoms
The main runner’s knee symptoms are pain behind, in front of, or on the sides of the knee.
It’s usually mild at first, worsening during and after activity. You might also feel it when you’ve been sitting for a long time with your knees bent, like at a movie theater (hence the colloquial term “moviegoers knee”).
Other symptoms include:
- Swelling in the knee
- Popping and crackling sensation in the knee
- Feeling of weakness in the knee
- Knee that is tender to the touch
How is runner’s knee diagnosed
Your doctor will usually diagnose runner’s knee by doing a physical exam and asking about your symptoms.
During the exam, your physician might press around your knee and on your kneecap. The doctor also will check the alignment of your kneecap and lower leg.
You might be asked to squat, jump, or lunge so your physician can see how your knee reacts. And you’ll probably have to walk in a line so that your doctor can look for any issues with your gait, which might be causing problems with your knee.
In some cases, your doctor may order an X-ray or MRI to rule out other possible causes for your pain, such as osteoarthritis or a bone fracture.
Runner’s knee treatment
How you treat runner’s knee depends on what’s causing it and what triggers your pain.
Stop doing any activities that put stress on your knee and trigger your pain, such as running or bicycling.
In addition to activity changes, treatments can include:
- Cold packs
- Elevating the leg
- Compression knee wrap
- Knee brace
- Anti-inflammatory pills, topical gels, or creams containing ibuprofen or diclofenac
- Stretching and strengthening exercises
- Shoe orthotics
Surgery for runner’s knee
In rare cases, surgery may be necessary. There are two types of surgical procedures:
Debridement: A surgeon removes fragments of damaged cartilage from the kneecap to make the knee move more smoothly. This is done arthroscopically, meaning a surgeon inserts a small camera into your joint and uses that camera to guide small surgical instruments.
Realignment: The surgeon opens the knee via a traditional incision to realign the kneecap with the shinbone.
Preventing runner’s knee
There are some things you can do to try to prevent runner’s knee. The key is to not overwork or stress your knee.
- Warm up before physical activity.
- Wear supportive shoes or orthotics.
- Increase activities gradually.
- Maintain a healthy body weight.
- Stretch after activities.
If running is your passion, you’ll want to check out these items that can support your health and safety.
- Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: “The Proportion of Lower Limb Running Injuries by Gender, Anatomical Location and Specific Pathology: A Systematic Review”
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: “Patellofemoral pain: consensus statement from the 3rd International Patellofemoral Pain Research Retreat held in Vancouver, September 2013”
- University of Rochester Medical Center: “Runner’s Knee”
- Hospital for Special Surgery: “Five Tips for Preventing Runner's Knee”
- Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego: “Runner’s Knee”
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner's Knee)”
- Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care: “Patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner's knee): Overview”
- New England Baptist Hospital: “Runner’s Knee”