Runner’s knee, as the name would suggest, is often caused by running.
But it can also be caused by any physical activity that places repeated stress on the knee, including walking, skiing and cycling.
So what is it exactly? And more importantly, what can you do to help avoid it?
What is runner’s knee?
Rather than referring to just one specific injury, runner’s knee is a term which is used as a catch all to describe the pain from any one of several knee issues.
Doctors often refer to runner’s knee as patellofemoral pain syndrome1 – catchy!
It is often felt as a dull pain around the front of the knee, behind and around the kneecap, where the knee connects with the lower end of the femur.2
What are the symptoms of runner’s knee?
The main symptom of runner’s knee is the pain. This can range from a dull pain to sharp and severe and is felt at the front of the knee, behind and around the kneecap.3
You might feel knee pain when bending, walking, squatting, kneeling or running, or even when just getting up from a chair.
It often feels worse when you walk downhill or down the stairs.4
You may also hear a popping sound or feel grinding. And your knee may appear swollen after exercise.5
Runner’s knee may vary in severity.
What causes runner’s knee?
Despite the name, runner’s knee can be caused by many things other than running.
Any overuse of the knee can cause this condition, thanks to repeated bending and straightening of the knee joint.
It can also be caused by an accident or trauma to the kneecap or a muscular imbalance of the thigh muscles.6
How to treat runner’s knee
Runner’s knee often gets better on its own with time.
However, there are still a number of things you can do to help relieve the pain and speed up your recovery:
As much as you can, try to avoid doing any weight-bearing activity that further hurts your knee.
While running is good for you, you should stop running whilst you are feeling pain.
Also avoid squatting and lunging as well as sitting down or standing up for long periods of time.
To help ease pain and any swelling, you should ice your knee.
Wrap a bag of peas or ice in a tea towel and place on the affected joint.
Try doing this for 20-30 minutes every 3-4 hours, for three days or until you do not feel pain anymore.7
Elevate the knee
Keeping the knee elevated will help to alleviate swelling.
Raise your knee higher than your heart when you ice it, using pillows to keep comfortable.8
Take pain relief
Over the counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen may help to reduce knee pain.
If your knee pain does not go away after a few days, or if it keeps returning, or feels unbearable, then you should see your GP for further medical advice.
How to prevent runner’s knee
You may find that your runner’s knee reoccurs.
However, there are a number of things you can do to help prevent the condition from returning:
Strengthening exercise will help to keep the knee stable to reduce knee pain when running and will help to increase flexibility in your legs whilst reducing tightness.
Try doing a variety of exercises focussing on strengthening the knees, hips, quadriceps and stretching out your hip flexors and hamstrings.
Some popular runner’s knee exercises you could try include:
- stretching your quads, calfs and hip flexors while standing
- lifting and lowering each leg whilst lying down
- stepping up and down on the stairs or a box step9
Keeping in shape will ensure that there is not too much pressure on your joints.
Eat a balanced diet and ensure that you take plenty of exercise. It is recommended that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.10
Get the right gear
Ensure that you buy high quality trainers with good support for your preferred sport or exercise and make sure that they are replaced when they become worn out.
Some foot problems can lead to runner’s knee and so, if this is the case for you, you may want to look into getting some orthotic shoe inserts.11
Check your surfaces
Where you run or do exercise will also have an impact on your knees.
Running is a high impact exercise and so running on a hard surface will place more stress on the joints.
The softest surfaces to run on, and therefore the ones which place the least stress on your joints, are grass, a track or the treadmill at home or in the gym.12
Last updated: 16 October 2020