Runner's Knee Treatment Options

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Male African American patient using stretch band on leg in physical therapy with female Asian American therapist

Runner's knee is the common name for patellofemoral pain syndrome. Although it can be painful, it usually can be managed with simple treatment. Runner’s knee occurs when the area under and around your kneecap (patella) becomes irritated either because your kneecap is misaligned or if there is strain on your knee.

If your knee hurts when running or you have other chronic knee pain, talk with your doctor about treatments for runner's knee. Runner’s knee treatment focuses on reducing the strain and, if necessary, strengthening other parts of your leg to keep the strain from recurring.

Initial Treatment for Runner’s Knee

When you are first diagnosed with runner’s knee, the most important part of the treatment is to help relieve pain. To do this your doctor may recommend:

  • Rest or modifying your activity. If you are a runner, you should cut down on your distance and intensity. If the pain is severe enough to cause limping, you may need to stop running altogether for a while.

  • Modifying your activity’s location. Running or jumping on concrete or asphalt is hard on your legs and knees. If you have runner’s knee, you may need to relocate to a softer surface, either a synthetic ground covering, grass or dirt.

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may help relieve pain. Acetaminophen may also be helpful.

  • Ice: If the pain is severe, placing an ice pack on your knee a few times a day may help.

Recovery Treatment

Once the initial pain is gone, your doctor may recommend treatment to help your knee recover and to reduce the chances of runner’s knee coming back. Physical therapy or working with a sports therapist may help you with this part of your recovery:

  • Stretching. Some people develop runner’s knee because their hamstrings, Achilles tendons, or IT (iliotibial) bands are too tight. Gentle and consistent stretching may help relieve the tension on the knee caused by this tightness.

  • Muscle strengthening. If your runner’s knee was caused by weak quadriceps (thigh muscles) or gluteus medius (muscles in your buttocks), a program that helps you strengthen the muscles may keep the knee pain from returning.

  • Core stability. Having a strong core, the muscles around your pelvis, helps keep you balanced and avoids putting too much stress on your knees. Exercises to strengthen the core may be helpful.

  • Good shoes or shoe orthotics. Some people “roll” their foot to the side when they take a step. This rolling motion pulls on the knees in an abnormal way. Well-constructed shoes or orthotics that you place inside your shoes can help correct your step, reducing strain on the knees.

  • Bracing or taping. Some people with runner’s knee find relief by wearing a brace or taping up their knee.

Surgery for Runner’s Knee

Surgery for runner’s knee is rare and is considered to be the last resort. Generally, surgery is considered only after non-surgical treatments have been tried for two years without relief.

  • Arthroscopic surgery: A minor, minimally invasive surgery, this procedure allows the orthopedic surgeon to examine the knee joint and remove any debris or damaged tissue inside your knee. The surgeon makes a few tiny incisions in your knee and inserts a camera and long instrument to complete the procedure.

  • Realignment: If your runner’s knee is caused by a misaligned kneecap and non-surgical treatments did not help relieve the pain, an orthopedic surgeon may recommend a realignment surgery. In this case, the surgeon makes a larger incision over your knee to realign the kneecap, taking pressure off the rest of the knee.

For the most part, treatment for runner’s knee is simple and easy to do. The trick is to be consistent, particularly if you need to do exercises to strengthen muscles or release too-tight tendons. Speak with your doctor about the best treatments for you.

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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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