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What is Runner's Knee and What Causes it?

May 26, 2022

What is runner’s knee and where does the name come from?

From the empirical standpoint, a runner’s knee is quite simple to define as the pain around the kneecap. The reason why it is commonly described as pain (a symptom) rather than a specific disease is due to the fact that it is caused by one of several different conditions.

The etymology behind is quite simple, seeing as how running is one of the most common causes. However, the issue can be caused by any act with repeated stress on your knee joint. In other words, this kind of injury (medically known as patellofemoral pain syndrome or PFP) can just as likely be caused by skiing, jumping, or playing soccer. In extreme cases where you already belong to a risk group or already suffer from mild discomfort, even walking or cycling may be the tipping point.

With all of this in mind and without further ado, we’ll try to answer a couple of questions on this subject matter, questions like:

  • What is the runner’s knee?
  • What causes it?
  • What are the risk groups?
  • How is it prevented?
  • How is it treated?
  • Let’s check it out!

How to Recognize Runner’s Knee?


First of all, in order to recognize it, you need to completely understand the location of the runner’s knee pain. The pain described as dull is often originating from the front of the knee in the region known as the patella, or the kneecap. This is the exact area in which the knee connects with the thigh bone (femur).

The most common symptoms (indicators) of the runner’s knee are:

  • Pain in and around the kneecap
  • Rubbing, grinding, and clicking sound that the kneecap makes
  • A kneecap that is tender to the touch

Keep in mind that each of these symptoms, on their own, may indicate some other affliction, as well. Put together, nonetheless, they are a pretty clear sign that what you might be dealing with is the runner’s knee. Nonetheless, the only way to tell for sure is to go see a specialist.

What Causes Runner’s Knee?

The number of causes of a runner’s knee is quite lengthy.

  • Most commonly, we’re talking about the overuse due to one of the athletic activities we’ve mentioned in the introduction (running, skiing, jumping, cycling, playing soccer).
  • Then, it’s also possible that it will happen as a result of an injury (especially a direct hit).
  • Sometimes, the cause will be a misalignment of bones. This is a scenario in which one of your bones (between the hip and ankle) does not line up perfectly. Seeing as how problems anywhere in this general area may be a source of this problem, issues like sacroiliac joint disease is something that you need to pay attention to as SI joint disease may also mimic runner’s knee.
  • Problems with your feet can also manifest through runner’s feet-like pain (especially hypermobile feet, fallen arches, or overpronation).
  • In some cases, the runner’s feet will be caused by weak or unbalanced thigh muscles.
  • Lastly, if the cartilage under your kneecap breaks down (an issue like chondromalacia patella), you have a high chance of developing a runner’s knee.

Understanding these causes can indicate that what you’re dealing with is actually a PFP syndrome.

What are runner’s knee risk groups? 

While it is true that this is an injury that can befall virtually anyone, there are some risk factors that may indicate that you are either more or less likely to develop problems.

  • As we’ve already described, overusing your knees is a huge risk factor, which is why lifestyle might be the first major risk factor. Professional athletes (especially in sports with a lot of running, jumping, and kicking) are at a risk.
  • Age is another huge factor, seeing as how younger people (adolescents and young adults) are more likely to develop patellofemoral pain. In older people, it’s usually arthritis that causes knee problems.
  • For some reason, women are twice as likely to develop PFP. The most likely theory why this is the case may have to do something with the fact that their pelvis increases the angle at which the bones in their knee joints meet.

So, if you belong to any of these three groups, you have one more reason to suspect a runner’s knee when experiencing knee pain. It’s also important that you understand that while common for them, these problems aren’t exclusive to these risk groups.

How do you prevent runner’s knee?

Now that you know what caused it, let’s see if there are some methods that can help you reduce the chance of developing a runner’s knee injury.

  • Learning proper running, jumping, kicking, and lifting technique definitely helps.
  • Losing excess pounds will put less pressure on your knee.
  • Warming up and stretching is a known recipe for fixing these problems.
  • Strengthening your quadriceps and hip abductors muscles will make it easier for you to maintain balance naturally.
  • Wearing quality shoes is also a good way to go.

While this won’t guarantee that you’ll stay safe, it’s definitely increasing the resilience of your knees.

What Is The Treatment for Runner’s Knee?

When suspecting a runner’s knee, the first thing you want to do is go to an orthopedic sports medicine specialist and get correctly diagnosed. From here, you’ll get the best advice on both invasive and non-invasive methods you can try and use to quickly and efficiently heal your knee.

While some of these methods will be as simple as resting, icing, or even applying a brace for the runner’s knee. In some of the most extreme cases, you might even have to talk to a specialist - a knee surgeon who would consider more invasive methods such as knee joint injection or even arthroscopy.

Other than this, you might get some medication in order to reduce the pain and swelling. Just make sure not to take these without consulting your doctor first.

Another point of interest, for anyone researching this topic, is the runner’s knee recovery time. If done properly, you can be back on the track pain free in 6-12 weeks. Remember, running with a runner’s knee is not only uncomfortable but also quite likely to make matters worse. 

Wrap Up 

Finding an answer to the question “What is a runner’s knee?”, is the first step you need to take in order to solve the problem. By recognizing a cause and understanding which risk group you fall under, you’ll be more likely to start with the right treatment. After getting your suspicions, the safest thing to do is just go to your doctor.

This is not something you want to take lightly, which is why you should reach out to our team of doctors and knee experts at The Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey.

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