The knee is one of the most common sites of injury for athletes at any level. In fact, estimates suggest that about a quarter of the adult population suffers from knee pain, with that number increasing among people who play sports. That’s because the knee is essential to many common athletic movements, like running and jumping.
If you want to learn more and begin to understand your risk of knee injury when playing sports, we hope to help. This article will focus on two of the most common overuse injuries for amateur athletes: patellar tendonitis and IT band syndrome.
Patellar Tendonitis (Jumper’s Knee)
Patellar tendonitis, sometimes called Jumper’s Knee, affects the tendon that connects your kneecap (patella) to your shinbone (tibia). It is an overuse injury, which means that it doesn’t happen suddenly because of one movement, but rather develops gradually. As the name suggests, Jumper’s Knee is most common in sports that involve a lot of jumping, like basketball or volleyball. However, it can also affect runners, cyclists, and other athletes.
Symptoms and Causes
If you have patellar tendonitis, you will feel a sharp pain just below the kneecap near the top of the shinbone. The pain is usually most severe during a workout, but it may linger as a dull ache afterwards. You may also feel pain after sitting for a long period of time with your knee bent.
The main cause of patellar tendonitis is a process known as eccentric loading. This is what happens when you land from a jump or slow down while running. As with tendonitis in other joints, patellar tendonitis is the result of small tears in the tendon. Without rest, these tears do not have time to heal, and the pain will persist.
The first step towards treating patellar tendonitis is to use the RICE technique: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Once you have relieved the initial pain and swelling, there are two key ways to relieve pain and prevent the injury from returning:
- Strengthening the quadriceps muscle
- Improving the flexibility of the hamstrings.
These two muscle groups stabilize the knee, and by improving the strength and flexibility of both muscles you can reduce the stress placed on your knee. You can also try wearing a sleeve or patella band while exercising to ease the pressure on your knee.
Once the pain and inflammation are reduced, you can begin exercising again. But it’s important to increase the intensity of workouts very slowly, and to stop if the pain returns.
Iliotibial (IT) Band Syndrome
IT band syndrome is another common knee injury that tends to affect distance runners and cyclists. You may have heard of the expression “runner’s knee.” This is a general term for a few different conditions, including IT band syndrome. Like patellar tendonitis, it is an overuse injury, though certain anatomical factors, like flat feet, could put you at higher risk.
Symptoms and Causes
The first symptom you may notice is a tenderness or dull ache on the outside of the knee. You may also notice that the pain is more severe when running downhill or when lengthening your stride. If you continue running after these symptoms start, the pain will become more severe and will start earlier in your run, so it’s important to listen to your body.
The IT band stretches from the hip to the knee, and is formed by the merging of hip flexors, extensors, and abductor muscles.
IT band syndrome involves the lower portion of the band rubbing against the outer portion of the femur or thighbone above the knee. This friction happens when you repeatedly bend and lengthen your knee, like you do while running. Fortunately, the condition is not usually serious, as long as you recognize the symptoms early and start working to treat the condition.
As with patellar tendonitis and most common sports injuries, you should immediately begin following the RICE protocol when you notice symptoms. Once the pain subsides, you can begin a program of stretching and strength exercises to build up the muscles of the hip abductor, gluteus medius, and core.
If knee pain persists, make an appointment with a sports medicine doctor, who can perform a closer examination and help get you back to peak performance.
If you feel that you're suffering from a more severe injury to your knee, click below to download our FREE guide. There are important distinctions between strains, sprains, and tears and how they are treated.
Downloading the FAQ below will help you identify your symptoms and have discussion with your doctor about the cause of your injury and your treatment options.
Images used with permission from the Hughson Foundation