Most runners and other athletes have a love/hate relationship with their knees. They have a deep sense of appreciation for the mechanical wonder that is a knee joint, with its ability to propel a body forward with balance, speed, and power. Yet they despair over the joint’s fragility and its ability to interfere with even the simplest forward motion when it is sore or injured. The good news is that a casual runner does not need access to a professional athlete’s medical staff for knee pain treatments. The better news is that a few regular stretching and strengthening exercises can prevent knee pain and injuries and speed the recovery when runner’s knee injuries do happen.
The Runner’s Knee Self-Exam
Pain from a runner’s knee injury can affect any athlete who participates in any sport that involves running. The injury usually follows an increase in running mileage, or it can stem from a leg length discrepancy or from running on uneven surfaces. The first key to treating the injury and lessening the pain is a self-assessment and diagnosis of the injury.
If you suspect this injury, sit down and extend the leg with the painful knee in front of you. Support your foot on a chair or low bench that is on the same plane as the seat of the chair. Ask a friend to squeeze your leg just above your knee joint with one hand, and to push the outside of your kneecap to the center of your leg with the other. While your friend is doing this, focus on tensing your thigh muscle. If you feel knee pain while your friend squeezes your leg, you probably have runner’s knee, which means you have inflamed cartilage or tendons, and not some more serious injury.
As with many joint injuries, your first response should be to ice your painful knee for 15 minutes after you are finished running or playing some other sport. This reduces inflammation and numbs the painful joint, which will make it easier for you to walk without paid or stiffness. Later, before you go to sleep, warm the painful knee joint with a heating pad or warm towels for another 15 minutes. If you are not allergic or your doctor has not recommended against it, you can take two aspirins with your meals and before you go to sleep to further reduce inflammation. Be careful, however, not to take aspirin immediately before you work out. The aspiring could numb you to pain and cause you to overwork an already-inflamed joint, leading to worse injuries and pain.
When you have managed to get your knee pain under control, you should concentrate on the next step toward preventing pain from a runner’s knee injury. Prevention requires you to support your feet and strengthen your thighs. Support products and strength exercises will improve your biomechanics and reduce stress on the knee joint to prevent further pain and injury.
Runner’s knee and inflammation of a knee joint are the result of a mechanical imbalance that causes your foot to hit the ground improperly with every stride you take. Your foot might be flattening too much, or it might move too much laterally or turn in or out to an excess. You can correct these imbalances with exercises that strengthen your foot muscles and with insole supports. A podiatrist might recommend strengthening exercises, for example, that have you miming the drawing of the alphabet with your toes, or by flattening a towel out under your foot followed by you bunching the towel with repeated toe curls. Store-bought insoles might be adequate to provide additional support and to help your foot land correctly. If store-bought insoles do not work for you, your podiatrist can measure you for a custom set of athletic insoles.
Quadricep exercises will strengthen your thighs and transfer the stress that caused your knee injury and pain to other parts of your leg that are better equipped to manage that stress. Your quadriceps are a group of four muscles that need to remain in balance with your thigh muscles at the back of your legs. Running gives you stronger thighs than quadriceps, so you need to compensate for over-strengthening the back of your legs. Strengthening your quadriceps will also improve your core muscle support, which will help you move faster and with more power.
Wall-supported leg lifts are a good start for this purpose. Stand with your back against a wall, concentrating to keep the small of you back in contact with the wall. Raise one leg straight in front of you and hold it for a 5- to 10-count. Bend your knee and hold your leg in a bent position for a similar count. Repeat this exercise with your other leg. If you do two or three sets of this exercise a few times per week, you will see quick results.
A few sets of foot presses will also help. While you are lying down or seated in a chair, place your legs straight out in front of you and position your left foot on top of your right. Keep your feet flexed, and do not point your toes. Pull your right leg toward you while you push away with your left foot, and hold this for a ten-count. Repeat the same exercise with your right foot on top of your left. This exercise will also stretch your leg muscles and improve your flexibility. You will benefit more from this exercise if you do it shortly after you run or when you have warmed your legs up with some other activity first.
Further, a few sets of leg lifts will also improve your core and quadricep strength. Lie flat on your back, concentrating to keep your lower back in contact with the floor. While you keep your legs straight, raise them simultaneously over your head. Keep your legs straight and your feet flexed. Be careful not to place too much pressure on your neck. Hold this for a five-count, and then lower your legs back to the floor. As you get stronger, lower your legs to a point where they are just off the floor and repeat the exercise at least two more times.
While you are still experiencing knee joint pain from a runner’s knee injury, you may find some relief from a soft knee brace that helps control the movement of your knee cap and prevents it from any sliding that causes inflammation.
Runner’s knee injuries and knee pain can strike an athlete at any time. Your kneecap is designed to slide smoothly in a groove on your thigh bone. When your mechanics are out of alignment or your quadricep muscles are weak, your knee cap bumps and twists outside of that groove and you wear away the cushioning material that protects your knee from injury. Get your feet into better alignment and keep your quadriceps strong to prevent your kneecaps from pulling or twisting to the side.
Self-diagnosis and self-help exercises can keep you moving through knee pain caused by a runner’s knee injury. Mueller Sports Medicine provides support and therapy products that will help in your recovery and prevent further injuries. Our representatives are available for consultation throughout North America. For more information about our products and services, please see our website or contact us to speak with one of our therapy specialists.