Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome in Runners

Knee pain is slowing my run to a crawl! Why is this happening? What is Patellofemoral syndrome?

Patellofemoral pain a.k.a. chondramalacia patella is the most common running-related knee problem. If you have this condition, you feel pain under and around your kneecap and often swelling of the area under the knee cap may occur. The pain can get worse when you are running or when you sit for a long time. Pain can also be associated with a “crunching” sensation when the knee is put through range of motion. You can have pain in only one knee, or you can have pain in both knees. It usually starts as a minor knee pain after running that progresses to pain when you get up in the morning, pain during or after exercise then pain all the time. Prompt intervention can decrease the period of disability form this injury.

The exact cause of patellofemoral pain is hard to define. It has been described as having something to do with the way your kneecap (called the “patella”) moves on the groove of your thigh bone (called the “femur”). Contributing factors include overuse and overload of the knee joint (too much, too soon, too fast syndrome), biomechanical problems and muscular imbalance or weakness. Often it is associated with an extremely flexible foot type and over-pronation (rolling in of your foot). It is more common in women than men and this is due to the “Q angle” of woman’s hips putting more stress on the knee. Weakness of the vastus medialis or the inner thigh muscle has also been touted as a cause.

What can I do to help my knee mend and relieve the pain ?

Take a break from running and any other activities that can cause a lot of pounding on your legs. Practice relative rest activities like swimming, biking, or the elliptical trainer which supports your body weight and puts less stress on your knees. As your knees feel better, you can slowly go back to running. It is important to do this slowly, and increase the amount of time you run by only about 10-20% a week.

The mainstay of treatment is physical therapy. It is imperative to work on the muscle imbalances that led to injury as well as stretching your hamstrings and strengthening your quadriceps. Strengthening is very important because your quad muscles control the movement of your kneecap and this is the most recognized cause of this syndrome.

Talk to your podiatrist about your running shoes and orthotics; it would help to bring your shoes in for the doctor to see, proper running shoes can really help knee pain. Orthotics are often needed to decrease and stabilize excessive foot motion that causes abnormal stress on the knee. Even just a simple arch support insert from the local drug store can be helpful. Although custom orthotics are considerably more expensive than off-the-shelf devices, they last much longer and provide more support or correction. For hard core runners, the durability is important. Many people crush a store purchased device in just a few months when a custom device can last for several years. In some cases, however, an over-the-counter device can be just as effective, particularly when combined with a stretching and exercise program.

Ice your knees for 10 to 20 minutes after activities, this can ease the pain and speed up healing. To keep your hands free, use an elastic wrap to hold the ice pack in place. An anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen may also help, however this should not be used to “get through” your workouts.

Will I ever be able to run again?

Be patient! Keep exercising to get better. Patellofemoral pain can be hard to treat, and your knees won’t get better overnight, some people are lucky and get better quickly but it might take six weeks or even longer for your knee to get better. Very few people need surgery to relieve their knee caps instability.

Remember, consistency is the key! You’ll be less likely to get this pain again if you continue to strengthen and avoid “too much, too soon, too fast syndrome!”. Even though the cause of patellofemoral pain syndrome remain uncertain, the good news is that most patients recover with conservative treatment, particularly if they maintain a disciplined approach.