How Doctors Diagnose Runner's Knee

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Runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome, is one of the most common causes of knee pain that cause people to see a doctor. Despite the name, anyone can develop the condition. The knee pain from runner’s knee is caused by a misalignment of the kneecap (patella) or strain and irritation on the knee. Knee pain can be caused by any number of issues related to your knee and your leg, so if you have knee pain that is not going away or is worsening, see your doctor to get a diagnosis. The sooner your knee problem is diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment and return to your regular activities.

Medical History and Physical Examination

Your history, both medical and how active you are, is your doctor’s first clue as to what may be causing your knee pain. You may be asked questions about what type of physical activities or sports you do, how often, and how your knee feels during and after the activities. Your doctor may ask about the shoes you wear, because poor or improper foot alignment can affect your knees.

Once your doctor has the necessary information, an examination of your knee will follow. Your doctor will be looking at how well you bend your knee, and will touch your knee and around it, pressing in certain spots. Your doctor will also look for swelling, redness or any other abnormal sign. Runner’s knee does not cause any obvious signs like swelling.

Imaging Tests

If your doctor suspects that you have runner’s knee, you still may be sent for imaging tests to see if your kneecap has any abnormalities or is out of place, and to rule out any more serious knee injuries, such as a meniscus tear. Most often an X-ray of your knee is sufficient, although if your doctor wants a clearer, more defined image, you could be sent for a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Treating Runner’s Knee

Getting a runner’s knee diagnosis is the first step to getting proper treatment. Your knee has many working parts to keep it moving and your body supported as you walk, run, jump and perform many other movements. Usually runner’s knee isn’t serious, but the pain may keep you from participating in your usual activities, even keep you from going to work, so treatment is essential to get you back to normal. Most commonly, doctors advise resting your knee to help relieve the pain. This means no running or other physical activities that place a strain on your knee. Other suggestions include:

  • Ice: Icing your knee a few times a day may help relieve pain.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: OTC medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can help relieve knee pain.

  • Evaluating and changing your shoes if needed: Activities that put a lot of strain on your legs require special shoes. If you are a runner or you play sports like basketball, where you run and pivot a lot, make sure the shoes you are wearing are right for that sport, and that they fit properly.

  • Physical therapy or sports therapy: A qualified therapist can give you exercises that will strengthen your leg muscles, and release your hamstring if it’s too tight, so not as much stress is placed on your knees.

  • Braces or wrapping the knee: Bracing or wrapping the knee isn’t a common treatment for runner’s knee but may be helpful.

In serious cases, your doctor may refer you to an orthopedic surgeon to see if you require surgery. There are two types of surgery that could be performed for runner’s knee:

  • Arthroscopic surgery: A minor surgery where the surgeon makes a few tiny incisions in your knee. Using long, narrow instruments and a camera inserted through the incisions, the surgeon examines the joint space and removes any damaged tissue.

  • Realignment: In more severe cases of runner’s knee, the surgeon may have to make a larger incision to realign the kneecap, taking pressure off the rest of the knee.

If you have been experiencing chronic knee pain, see your doctor for an evaluation. Treatment can help you return to the level of physical activity you are used to, whether it be for work or play.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 24
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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