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Why Healthy Athletes Experience Knee Pain Without an Injury

When it comes to athletics, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single sport or activity that doesn’t somehow involve the legs. Running, jumping, climbing, and turning quickly. Each movement requires support from your bones, the force from your muscles, and near-snapping tension in your ligaments. Sudden or awkward movements can lead to an injury. Especially, in your knees.

Jammed toes, turned ankles, sprained knees, and thrown hips are all normal challenges for active people, training or playing. However, sometimes you feel pain and you’re not sure what caused it.

Causes of Knee Pain in Athletes

There are a lot of diagnoses that will tell you whether or not your knees are particularly subject to injury or pain like arthritis, tendinitis, and recovering from previous injuries, but what if you’re not exactly sure why your knee hurts? Your last round of training seemed perfectly normal and unlike a sprain, you don’t recall any moment in which there was a sudden pain of ligament tearing to blame the pain on. When this happens, especially when your favorite pastime is constant invigorating exercise, unexplained pain in one or both knees is both elusive and frustrating.

However, knee pain significant enough to slow your roll or even take you off the track doesn’t necessarily require a preexisting condition or an overwhelming injury. More often than not, when an athlete experiences lesser aches and pains, the cause is often simply wear-and-tear rather than an obvious and definitive injury. Even if you didn’t throw out your knee or fall recently, it’s still possible to have built up a certain amount of wear-and-tear during your last workout to cause persistent pain.

Injury from Exhaustive Exercise

The most likely cause of slow lingering knee pain is from imperfect form while exercising or playing, caused by two primary influences. The first is working out to exhaustion. While most athletes know to start with good form and work hard to maintain good form in order to avoid injury, the kind of exhaustive workout that many find so satisfying is also risky. As you get tired, your control over the exact movements of your limbs can begin to move out of perfect form without your notice.

When this happens, it’s possible for your knee to turn out of perfect alignment over and over again, especially during workouts involving constant repetitive movements like running or jumping jacks. This creates a slow progressive strain that will result in pain that may not manifest until after you relax and the pain-resisting endorphins from exercise wear off.

Repetitive Motion Injuries

Repetitive motion or repetitive strain injuries are incredibly common among both athletes and people who have labor-intensive jobs. Even if you have perfect form with every motion repetition, it’s still possible to wear out one section of muscle or over-strain your supporting tissue simply by overdoing the same motion too many times in a short period of time. For athletes, in particular, repetitive strain injuries are usually the result of focusing too much on one set of muscle building exercises or practicing the exact same move over an extended period of time.

The more times the motion is repeated without sufficient time to recover, the more likely it is to result in pain, tenderness, sensitivity, and possibly even weakness. While this is most likely an injury of the muscles you can also be caused by pinched, grated, or worn-down ligament and support tissue in the knee or even begin to grind the bone itself depending on your knees and the activity in question.

When Your Knee Starts to Hurt

Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong, even if you didn’t notice when the cause occurred because it happened slowly over time. Whenever you start to notice the pain, and that it’s not something you can just ‘walk-off’, it’s time to take note and begin recovery procedures. Whether or not you know what the injury is or how it was caused, you can determine what treatment will get you back to your normal exercise routine with a few simple examination methods.

Rest for One Day

First, don’t get too concerned over minor pain on the first day. Joints and muscles often wear out and feel achy or sore after an intense workout and need a day or two to recover. This is why many of the more intense workout routines suggest a few days of rest after a one to several days of exertion. For this reason, it’s never a bad idea to simply give yourself one day off and see how you feel after 24 hours of intentionally resting your sore knee. In many cases, minor pain caused by carelessness or repetitive strain will heal on its own as long as you give it the room to do so. IF you feel better but the pain isn’t gone after one day, repeat until you only feel faintly sore, then get back into the workout slowly as if you were recovering from a sprain.

When to See a Doctor

If the knee pain is intense, especially if it’s still quite painful after a day of rest, take yourself to the doctor or have a friend drive you if working the pedals causes additional pain. The doctor will be able to tell you if there is a greater underlying cause that requires additional treatment or if the standard methods of treating ligament and muscle strain are sufficient.

Home Recovery

Whether you’re treating your knee independently or if the doctor sent you home with advice to take it easy, support and the RICE method are your best bets for recovering quickly and figuring out a new way to exercise that won’t cause this kind of minor strain again.

Ice or Heat
The standard RICE method for recovery stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. These are all ways that encourage healing of muscle and ligaments by reducing swelling and/or promoting blood flow. Since you’ve already resolved to rest, your next choice is whether ice or heat is the correct application. The I in rice is to guide athletes who are dealing with a very recent injury in which it is vital to immediately bring down the swelling before it immobilizes the knee and becomes unpleasantly tender. If your knee is swelling and painful, ice or ice packs are the answer.

However, if your knee only hurts or if there was swelling that has since gone down, heat is the better choice to promote blood flow and accelerate recovery. The more blood travels to and from the recovering joint, the faster you will feel better. This is why hot compresses are great for much of the day and hot baths are a good way to spend the time you’ll already need to be resting. Both ice and heat can also be achieved with a pocketed knee brace that can hold hot or cold packs.

Compression and Support
Compression is another way to reduce swelling if there is any but it also serves a secondary purpose, supporting an injured joint in order to allow you to move while it recovers. This is especially important if you experience weakness and pain in an injured knee any time you don’t have it propped up. A compression brace or bandage is useful in the face of swelling while more structured but less tightly bound knee braces are ideal for support without compression after any swelling has gone down.

The final aspect of the RICE method of recovery for most knee injuries, whether caused by an event or repeated strain, is elevation. Like heat, lifting your knee above the level of your heart helps to balance blood flow and reduces pressure to the injury. Because your knee is quite low in the body, it’s all too easy for your body’s desire to heal to send too much blood. While heat will make it easier for blood to flow to and from your painful knee, elevation will help to ensure that the right amount of blood is flowing through at any given moment.

If you find yourself wondering why your knee has begun to hurt with no clear moment of injury, you’re not alone. Aches and pains happen to athletes and hard-working professionals all the time and it’s not always from something obvious and immediate. From slightly out-of-alignment movements to simply too much repetition, mysterious knee pain is usually a perfectly normal type of injury that simply happened over time instead of being caused by a single event. The good news is that you should be able to recover relatively quickly with the help of a comfortably supportive knee brace, and wise application of the RICE method.