track runner leaving starting line

How to Treat Runner’s Knee Pain and Get Back to Training

Avoiding knee joint pain from runner’s knee is all about maintaining form. When you run on a regular basis for sport or training, form is the most important thing to maintain. Yes, you need to stay hydrated, wear the right clothes, and eat a light breakfast before your run. But form is what will ensure that every step is doing the best possible benefit for your body, and avoiding any potential to do harm.

Of course, no one’s form is perfect all the time. Fatigue, uneven terrain, breaking in new shoes, or even just running while distracted can cause your form to slip. For many runners, form is more challenging because of physical conditions that make it difficult to achieve a perfect alignment from the spine to the hips, knees, ankles, to the bottoms of the feet. Conditions that make perfect form impossible will make a runner more susceptible to running injuries like sprains and runner’s knee.

What Exactly is Runner’s Knee?

Runner’s knee can come from a number of mechanical causes, but ultimately it occurs when constant or impactful activity causes pain in the knee behind and around the kneecap. This is known medically as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) because the pain occurs where the kneecap rides a groove in the femur. As “patello” refers to your kneecap and “femoral” refers to your femur, or thigh bone.

Runner’s knee is a type of pain that is most commonly felt by runners because running activities frequently agitate or wear down this part of the knee. So there’s not an exact definition for it, or one cure-all solution. Fortunately, literal centuries of runners and medical knowledge has made it possible to treat your runner’s knee joint pain and get back to pain-free training in no time.

Identifying Runner’s Knee

  • Swelling around the knee
  • Pain in front of or behind your kneecap
  • Pain just below your kneecap
  • Popping sound or grinding sensation
  • Pain going downstairs or downhill
  • Pain when the knee bends to walk, kneel, or stand up.

Treating Runner’s Knee Joint Pain

Most runners need a few methods to treat runner’s knee fast, no matter the cause. In time, you’ll confer with your doctor to determine if there are any long-term causes or risk factors for runner’s knee that you can address. But in the meantime, you want to treat the pain and prevent further injury so you can get back on the field or return to your favored training routine. Here at Mueller Sports Medicine, we’ve focused our efforts on offering the materials athletes need to treat stress injuries like runner’s knee at home.

Here’s how to ease the pain and get back to your run:

Wear a Supportive Knee Brace

Running on a swollen or painful knee is a bad idea, but you can often get back on the track by wearing a supportive knee brace. Depending on the brace you choose, a knee brace can take some weight off the knee, hold your knee in alignment as you run, or offer extra support for controlled knee flexing.

A compression brace or wrapped elastic bandage should be worn during the early phases of healing and/or any time your knee shows signs of swelling. Compression reduces swelling and keeps your knee warm at the same time to promote healing. Once the swelling has gone down, you can experiment with knee braces to find the type that eases your pain.

The type of knee brace best for you will reveal something of the source of your pain. If a hinged brace is the answer, for example, then misalignment may be the problem. If a compression brace is right, you may have a small healing injury or a weak muscle.

Ice for Swelling, Heat for Healing

Ice and heat are both recommended to ease pain and promote healing. But they accomplish these goals in two very different ways. Ice is only appropriate if your knee is swelling. The cold acts as a topical pain killer and slows down blood flow to reduce the swelling. Ice for no more than 30 minutes at a time every two hours. Be sure to hold your ice in a cloth to protect your skin.

If you are not experiencing swelling, then heat is the correct temperature treatment. Hot baths, hot compresses, or a hot water bottle on the knee can work wonders, especially if the pain is caused by strained soft tissue. The heat relaxes muscles and tendons and promotes blood flow which accelerates healing. The heat eases pain as it eases the tension surrounding your knee.

Temporary Use of NSAID Painkillers

If your runner’s knee is is distracting or making it difficult to function, you can ease the pain with over-the-counter painkillers. However, it is very important that you only use NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) painkillers which are designed to reduce swelling and leave you with a clear head.

NSAID Painkillers Include:

  • Aspirin
    • Excedrin
    • Bayer
    • Bufferin
  • Ibuprofen
    • Advil
    • Motrin
    • Nuprin
  • Ketoprofen
    • Actron
    • Orudis
  • Naproxen
    • Aleve

Rest and Elevation

And, of course, nothing beats rest for a wear-and-tear injury. Even if you still have to get around for work or school, the more you can rest an injured knee, the better. Wrap up that knee in ice or a hot pad and prop it up on a pillow for a few hours in the evening. Even one night of pampering your knee can make a real difference. Especially if you’re an active person who uses your knees non-stop.

If you work a desk job, rig up a way to prop up your leg while you work, or while you do schoolwork if you are a student. This can be a great way to steal a few extra hours of knee recovery from your busy day.

Stretching and Massage

Finally, never underestimate the value of stretching and massage. Runner’s knee is often related to tension or grating of the soft tissue. A massage can loosen up the tissue and promote healing blood flow. Stretching out can loosen knots, realign your knee, and help your soft tissue heal long and flexible.

Causes & Cures for Runner’s Knee Pain

You can treat the symptoms of runner’s knee at home and heal any minor injuries that may be causing it. But your long-term solution should always target the true source of your discomfort. There are dozens of possible causes for the pain experienced as runner’s knee. Every runner, and every knee, are different. The right way to stop your pain for good will always depend on what caused it in the first place.

Poor Running Form – Minor Strain

You may, for example, be experiencing runner’s knee because your running form is off. You could be running with greater ergonomic movement or better physical precision. Perhaps your ankles roll in or your feet are flaring out too far. Any movement that causes misalignment of the knee upon impact can cause this type of pain that can eventually grow into an ongoing painful sensation.

Treating Poor Form

If you suspect that the runner’s knee is coming from poor running form, the best answer is naturally to improve your form. Pay very close attention to how you are running. To how your legs move from the hips to knees to feet. Do your feet kick out? Do your hips feel stressed? Compare your running form to videos of running instructors on YouTube. You can also check with your trainer, friends, or even a professional at your local gym for advice on how to improve your running form.

Wear & Tear from Repetitive Motion

In some cases, you might just be running too much. Or the work you’re doing other than running is wearing your knee down with repetitive motion. This can happen when you run a short track the same direction too many times or if you are doing many high-impact exercises like squats or steps with your knees. If you’re putting too much stress on your knees, one may begin showing signs of runner’s knee pain.

Treating Wear & Tear Runner’s Knee

If your knee is simply worn out from being overused, or overused with poor form, the best solution is a few days or even weeks of rest followed by a change in routine. Stop doing whatever you’re doing so repetitively. Change up your running route, focus on upper body for your high-impact exercises, and consider different movements at work. Massage and stretching can also be particularly useful to promote healing.

Recent Injury, Serious or Minor

If you have been recently injured or even just struck a light blow to the knee, the longer-term effect can be runner’s knee pain. A strain or sprain around the knee can also cause your problem.

Treating Your Knee Injury

Fortunately, minor knee injuries are one of the easiest types of runners knee to treat because it is not an ongoing problem. Apply the RICE method of recovery (Rest, ICE, Compression, Elevation) to control swelling and reduce pain. Then, when the swelling is gone, use heat and a knee brace as you return to exercise to promote recovery.

Misalignment of the Leg Bones

Then there’s simple physical misalignment. Not everyone is born with hips, knees, and ankles that perfectly line up. If there is any misalignment from hips to ankles, this can throw off your running gait and cause your kneecap to slowly grind into your patella as you run.

Treating Misalignment

If you determine your runner’s knee is due to misalignment, you’ll need to work with a doctor to find the solution. But don’t let that discourage you. In many cases, the solution is simple but very specific to you. You may, for example, need a special kind of shoe insert that re-aligns your ankles and knees. Or to wear a brace that keeps your knee in alignment when you run.

Imperfect Feet or the Wrong Shoes

Lastly, there are the feet. Flat feet (collapsible arches), overpronation (rolling ankles) and hypermobile feet (too flexible) can all put you at a higher risk of developing runner’s knee.

Likewise, the wrong shoes can simulate or exacerbate foot troubles. If your shoes put your feet at the wrong angle, that misalignment will translate up through the ankles to you knees which will hurt.

Treating Foot and Shoe Problems

Foot troubles are also easy to treat, if you’re patient about shoe shopping. Every runner needs a pair of shoes that aligns their feet correctly, whatever the needs of their feet. Shoes with good arch support or prescription inserts can help you solve problems with both bad feet or just previously bad shoes.

Don’t let runner’s knee joint pain bring you down. If you’re experiencing ongoing pain, see your doctor and begin treating the knee as if it were an injury. For more information about treating your knee joint pain, contact us today!