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How To Manage Knee Pain After Running: Possible Causes And Treatments

Countless people have told me how knee pain has impacted their ability to run. It’s definitely a prevalent problem. If you fit in that category, this article will tell you everything you need to know about knee pain during and after running.

We’ll cover common injuries and treatments so that you can manage your knee pain and get back outside doing what you love—running.

Anatomy of the Knee

The knee is the most complex joint in the body, connecting the lower and upper body. It is composed of three bones: the tibia (shin bone), the femur (thigh bone), and the patella (kneecap).

Padding the joint is two different types of cartilage. The meniscus is crescent-shaped discs that act as shock absorbers. Articular cartilage is a thin, shiny layer that also acts as a shock absorber.

As the largest joint in the body, the knee is easily injured. Any direct blow to the knee is considered a serious injury that necessitates immediate medical attention.

How the Knee is Used While Running

Your knee is used in both the drive and recovery phases of running. The knee extends during the drive phase and flexes during the recovery phase. The femur and tibia form the hinge joint used in flexing the leg.

As a good number of muscles and connective tissues are connected to the knee, your knees play a key role in running.

Common Running Knee-Related Injuries

If runners use proper form, they are not at greater risk for running injuries than anyone else. But overuse and repetitive stress mean many of the following knee-related injuries are common for runners.

Runner’s Knee

This is probably the most common knee-related running injury. There’s a good chance that this might be your issue if you have knee pain.

Where it hurts

If you feel pain around your kneecap or patella, runner’s knee is a likely culprit. This pain can occur when you are walking, going up or downstairs, or sitting down for a long time.

Reasons for pain

Runner’s knee is due to repeated stress around the knee joint, which can occur due to running (hence the name) as well as a whole host of other activities like skiing, jumping, and biking.

Runner’s knee is more common in women, particularly middle-aged women, and those who are overweight.

How to treat it

Because runners knee is due to overuse, the best way to treat it is to take a break. Use the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Oftentimes, this alone does the trick.

In some cases, it may be helpful to go to physical therapy to regain a full range of motion. You may even want to wear a knee brace so that you’ll have additional support as well as pain relief.

Male runner having problems in knee joint.

Patellar Tendonitis

Patellar tendonitis is less common in runners, as its second name—jumper’s knee—reveals. This injury is more prevalent for athletes who jump a lot. Basketball players and volleyball players are especially susceptible, but anyone can get it.

Where it hurts

Typically, you’ll experience slight pain and tenderness at the base of your kneecap. You may also see some swelling or feel a burning sensation in the kneecap. When the tendon is first damaged, pain may be sporadic, occurring only after running or physical activity.

However, as the tendon gets more damaged, it will be painful more often. Not only will it hurt during activities like squats – it can start to be painful even just sitting at your desk.

Reasons for pain

Because running can force your knees to carry a force of five times your body weight (even if you’re tiny and weigh 100 pounds, that’s 500 pounds!), it can put undue stress on the patellar tendon.

How to treat it

Typically, you’ll receive medication (either over-the-counter, or a corticosteroid if the pain is severe) followed by therapy. Stretching your leg and thigh muscles relieves the pressure placed on the patellar tendon.

Again, a brace (see our article on knee braces) may be helpful if you have pain even when you are sitting down. The support can help avoid further damage. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may have to look into alternative treatments or surgery.

Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS)

This is another common overuse injury for runners. If you’ve been training a lot, you might be a more likely candidate for ITBS.

Where it hurts

ITBS has similar pain points to runners knee, but it occurs outside of the knee for ITBS, where the iliotibial band connects to the tibia.

Reasons for pain

Typically, ITBS occurs in people who are younger and/or who exercise a lot. If you don’t spend the proper amount of time warming up, cooling down, or stretching, the IT band can get painfully tight. Pushing yourself too hard, or not giving your body enough rest can exacerbate the condition.

How to treat it

Often ITBS is treated by taking anti-inflammatory meds. Before that point, rest and icing the area, stretching regularly, and strengthening the muscles all help. Just taking a brief break and making sure that you’re stretching will go a long way to correcting ITBS.

KNEE - running man leg scan in blue

Meniscus Tear

Think back to the anatomy of the knee. There are two different types of cartilage, one of which is the meniscus. Injuring this disc-shaped piece of cartilage is called a meniscus tear.

Where it hurts

If you hear a popping noise around your knee joint, that may have been a meniscus tear. Later, you might feel pain, have difficulty moving your knee, or even feel like your knee is giving way.

If you experience a slipping sensation, this may suggest that a piece of cartilage is loose. That can block the knee’s full range of motion.

Reasons for pain

Meniscus tears are more common if you are participating in an activity that requires a lot of sudden stops and turns. Additionally, if you’re older, the cartilage in your knee is weaker and therefore more likely to tear. Finally, osteoarthritis puts you at a higher risk for meniscus tears.

How to treat it

Start by using the RICE method and taking any anti-inflammatory meds that you need to stay comfortable. If it’s painful, make sure that you don’t put your full weight on your knee until it heals.

Knee Bursitis

Knee bursitis is an inflammation in your knees that impacts the bursae, or fluid-filled sacs that pad your knee.

Where it hurts

While it can occur anywhere on your knee, knee bursitis most often occurs on the inner side of your knee or over the kneecap.

Reasons for pain

Knee bursitis can be caused by a variety of reasons: overuse, bacterial infections of the bursa, or frequent pressure on your knees. Runners are most likely to experience pain in the pes anserine bursa, located on the inner side of your knee.

How to treat it

You can best treat knee bursitis by resting your knee. Go easy on the squats on your non-running days, and maintain a healthy weight.

Baker’s Cyst

As the name implies, this is a cyst located on the back of your knee. It’s a fluid-filled swelling that is uncomfortable and can cause fluid to run down the leg if it ruptures, which is uncommon.

Where it hurts

Actually, it may not hurt at all. But if it does, you might notice a limited range of motion or some swelling.

Reasons for pain

Typically, people get Baker’s cysts if they have arthritis or damage to the knee’s meniscus. If the knee produces too much fluid, it forces some of it back, creating a bulge.

How to treat it

Often Baker’s cysts go away on their own. If it gets to the point of causing severe pain, you may need to have it drained. Physical therapy will help you regain your range of motion.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. The condition is the result of cartilage wearing down over time.

Where it hurts

Osteoarthritis doesn’t occur just in your knees. It can happen in any joint, although knees are one of the more common joints. Typically, you’ll feel pain, stiffness, and tenderness around the affected area.

Reasons for pain

Osteoarthritis is due to joint damage – specifically, the wearing away of cartilage. Although it often occurs to older people, if you have had injuries in the past, you might also be more likely to suffer from it. Family history and poor posture can also make you more likely to have osteoarthritis.

How to treat it

As long as you don’t overdo it, exercise can actually help with osteoarthritis, although you probably want to choose gentle exercises like swimming. Additionally, making sure that you are a healthy weight and are getting the sleep you need will help.

Finally, heat and cold therapy can also help with the pain. There are many heated knee wraps on the market, some can be used for cold therapy as well.

Other Symptoms of More Serious Knee Issues

In some cases, it’s essential to see a doctor immediately if you experience more serious knee issues when you’re running or just after a run.

For example, if you experience locking or instability, swelling, sudden knee pain symptoms, throbbing pain, or numbness, stop what you’re doing and immediately seek medical attention.

Hopefully, this article has been a good overview for you about the best ways to deal with knee pain and hopefully prevent it. Remember that knee pain doesn’t have to be a requirement of running if you handle things right!

The Wired Runner