Runner’s knee or Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS) is a general term used to describe any condition that causes pain in the knee cap (called the patella).
Although the most common cause of runner’s knee is running, it can also occur when doing activities that cause repetitive stress on the knee, such as the repeated knee bending common in cycling, biking, jumping and walking.
Malalignment, obesity, weak and tight thigh muscles, or tight Achilles tendons are some factors that contribute to runner’s knee.
How Long Does Runner’s Knee Last?
Pain felt in a runner’s knee generally gets better within four to six weeks.
However, healing time still depends on the individual and how much pain the individual experiences, how severe the injury is, and if other subjective factors are present such as obesity, malalignment of the legs, improper posture, and genetic conditions.
How Long Should You Rest From Running When You Have a Runner’s Knee?
Different people heal at different rates. Some people may be required to entirely refrain from running, while other people will be asked only to lessen the length of time, volume or load while running to minimize the stress on the knee.
In general, you have to refrain from running if the pain is severe and running makes it intolerable. It is better to consider other forms of exercise that do not involve excessive knee bending or put too much stress on the knee, such as swimming.
Physicians recommend going back to your usual level of physical activity if you meet the following conditions:
- Full knee bending is possible and pain-free.
- Walking, running and jogging do not cause any severe pain.
- The injured knee feels as strong as the uninjured knee.
Runner’s knee usually heals on its own. However, it is still best to consult a doctor or a physical therapist to properly assess, diagnose, and provide the proper treatment for your knee to promote better healing and recovery and a faster return to your regular activities.
What Can You Do to Promote Recovery From a Runner’s Knee?
Pain in the knee does not mean that you have to discontinue exercising altogether. As long as the pain and swelling are minimal, you can still perform specific exercises.
Exercises help enhance healing, strengthen needed muscles and improve range of motion. Aside from certain exercises, you can also complete the following tasks to aid in faster healing and recovery from runner’s knee:
- Reduce Load on the Injured Knee
- The most frequent cause of runner’s knee is overuse. Suppose you cannot avoid running, cycling, or biking. In that case, you can lessen the duration of the activity and increase the frequency while taking adequate rest between sets to achieve the target mileage.
- Always remember that if pain increases and becomes intolerable, you should immediately stop the activity.
- Progress the exercises gradually
- Gradual progression ensures that the body can adapt when subjected to increased stress and load. As the body experiences increasing load, the body tissues heal, adapt and become stronger.
- However, a rapid increase in exercise load gives the body limited time to heal and adapt, which could lead to a breakdown resulting in further injury.
- Gradual exercise progression will allow the knee to adapt optimally, leading to more robust and better performance.
- Build strength on the muscles around the injured knee and stretch tight muscles
- Aside from helping the body move, muscles also provide support and stability.
- The muscles of the thigh (the quadriceps), buttocks area (the gluteus muscles), back of the thigh (the hamstrings), and inner thighs of the leg (called the adductors) are important muscles that support the knee and the whole leg.
- Tight and weak muscles cannot properly support the kneecap and could result in malalignment, putting pressure and undue stress on the joint.
- Strengthening weak muscles and stretching tight muscles under the guidance of a physical therapist will aid in faster recovery and prevent re-injury.
- Use proper footwear
- Wearing proper shoes with good shock absorption will provide adequate support to the feet and lessen the impact on the knees.
- Proper footwear is also important to ensure that the hips, knees, and feet are properly aligned while performing activities. Physicians recommend using orthotics if you have problems with foot alignment, such as a flat foot.
- Malalignment affects the whole leg, including the hips and the spine. Malalignment will ultimately affect your overall performance and could result in further injury.
When Does Runner’s Knee Require Surgery?
Doctors rarely prescribe surgery for runner’s knee as it usually gets better with conservative treatment. Surgery will only increase the time needed for healing and might result in several complications such as infection.
Surgery may only be required if there is already a problem with the cartilage of the knee. Cartilage is a strong fibrous tissue that cushions, stabilizes and supports bones in joints.
Locking, popping, or buckling of the knee are common signs of a defect in the cartilage located behind the knee cap. If you experience this, it is best to consult your doctor for proper management.
Otherwise, runner’s knee is generally best managed with non-invasive treatment such as rehabilitation with a physical therapist.
Is It Okay to Run With Knee Pain?
It is considered okay to run if the pain is tolerable and the swelling is minimal. Consider the 0 to 10 pain scale, where 0 = no pain and 10 = extreme pain. If your pain is 4/10 or less, then it is safe to run.
There might be some swelling and a slight increase in pain, but these aggravations should be gone the next day. As mentioned, always remember to gradually increase the speed, duration, and frequency of running.
For safety purposes, try to avoid running uphill and downhill and on uneven surfaces initially, as these exert a significant impact on the knee and surrounding structures.
Begin running on even surfaces first, and as the pain and swelling decrease as the injured knee heals, running on inclines can proceed gradually.
Does Runner’s Knee Cause Permanent Damage?
If runner’s knee is disregarded and left untreated for a long time, it can cause damage to the cartilage. Overuse might result in permanent damage to the cartilage, increasing the likelihood of acquiring arthritis.
Also, a runner’s knee due to malalignment could lead to partial or complete kneecap dislocation. The earlier treatment is pursued for runner’s knee, the greater the chance for a fast, full recovery.
Dr Aarti is an MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery) from Baroda Medical College (The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda). Dr. Aarti has also completed her Masters of Medical Science and Technology from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.