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Knee pain? Top three causes and what to do about it.

Knee pain is one of the most common complaints that brings people into our office.

Since most of our clients are in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, they start to really worry that knee pain could bring an end to their active lifestyle. But that doesn’t have to be the case! The good news is that unless you’ve had some serious trauma (like a major accident or fall), 80% of all knee problems can be resolved without any kind of procedure or surgery – and most importantly – you can learn how to continue managing them on your own so that they never get in the way of your favorite activities again.

Sound too good to be true?

It’s not – I promise – but the first step is figuring out where your knee pain is coming from. Once you know that, you can get on the right path to resolve it.

Here are three of the most common causes I see that make people suffer from knee pain and what you can do about them:

1. Iliotibial band syndrome

This is a very common problem that typically affects runners, avid walkers, and hikers. It is often misdiagnosed and confused with patellofemoral syndrome (see below). Your iliotibial band (IT band) is a very large thick band on the side of your knee that will often get overworked due to a muscular imbalance elsewhere in your body (usually your hips and core). When this happens, you’ll feel pain that is on the side of your knee that is usually very sore and tender to touch, and typically sharp and stabbing versus achy. It will impact you most when you’re going downhill or down the stairs.

It’s important to note that even though a tight, and painful IT band is the structure causing you to have pain – it is typically a symptom of an underlying problem. Like I said before, IT band problems are usually the result of your core and hips not stabilizing your pelvis properly – which ultimately results in your knee not receiving the support it needs when you’re running, walking, or hiking.

Getting rid of the actual pain is the easy part… in our office we use things like dry needling, soft tissue work, and sometimes even some taping. But if you want to keep the pain gone – you MUST address the underlying causes as well. This is what a lot of people miss. We love using Pilates-based exercises in our office because they not only target your core, but also get your muscles working in a coordinated, symmetrical fashion, helping to keep things balanced as you get back to your favorite activities.

2. Patellofemoral Knee syndrome

This problem is very similar to IT band syndrome, with just a few key differences. This first is that it can impact almost anyone – not just runners, hikers, and walkers. You’ll also experience the pain in the front of your knee – typically under your kneecap – and it will tend to be more achy than sharp. This problem will often come on very slowly and can be more chronic than its IT band cousin. You’ll feel this more when you’re going up stairs, up hills, and with squatting. You’ll also notice stiffness and pain in the front of your knee after sitting awhile – that usually will go away once you start moving.

Much like IT band syndrome – these are all symptoms of an underlying cause. A weak core and hips can cause this problem too, but I usually see more weaknesses in glutes and hamstrings with this one. When the backs of your hips and legs aren’t kicking in like they should, it can result in tight hip flexors or quads. This is a super common culprit for patellofemoral syndrome. So once again, you can get rid of the pain quite easily in most cases, but you must make sure to determine – and address – the root cause so that you can keep this pain gone for good.

3. Osteoarthritis

Many people hear that they have osteoarthritis in their knee and think there isn’t anything they can do about it. Not true!! Arthritis is often blamed for knee problems but it isn’t always the cause of what you’re feeling… Let me explain….

When arthritis is the true cause and culprit for your knee problem, it will be painful and stiff all the time. You’ll lack significant mobility and it will be almost impossible to walk and bear weight without support or a cane. When this is truly your problem – you are a great candidate for total knee replacement surgery. Now here’s the catch… sometimes your X-ray or MRI will show that you have terrible arthritis or that you have “bone-on-bone”… but that doesn’t mean you need to rush to surgery! Your symptoms should really decide that.

If your pain comes and goes (meaning you have good days and bad days), if you can walk around most days and go up and down the stairs and your knee just “catches”, or maybe you feel stiff a lot but this eases up with movement – you might have arthritis in your knee but it is not the root cause of your knee problem. Because here’s a hint – arthritis does NOT come and go – but other common musculoskeletal problems can. When your pain comes and goes, you know it can’t be entirely from arthritis.

So what should you do?

With arthritis, whether it’s partially to blame, or whether it’s just something that shows up on the X-ray and gets blamed… we still need to look at the surrounding structures and root cause of the problem.

If your quads are really tight, and the muscles around your knee are imbalanced, this can create compressive forces in your knee joint which will exacerbate what might normally just be “mild” arthritis (compression will aggravate arthritis). You could also have weakness or problems in your ankles, feet, or core that are causing your knee to work harder than it needs to. This can cause pain all on its own, OR aggravate your arthritis. The point is, get checked by a musculoskeletal expert – people trained like us – so that instead of just fishing for the problem or only treating symptoms, you are getting to the root cause of your problem and setting yourself up for success!

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you may benefit from working with a specialist physical therapist who can help you get back to the activities you love – without pain pills or unnecessary procedures. You can click right here to request a FREE Discovery session with one of our specialists. We’d love to help you figure out the root cause of your knee problem so that you can get back to doing everything you love – instead of spending time in the doctor’s office 🙂

Not quite ready for a solution yet but looking for more information? Request a seat at our next Health and Posture class! It’s totally free and the next topic just happens to be all about hip and knee problems! Figure out if your problem is arthritis, IT band syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome, or something else entirely… with other folks just like you.

Carrie working on a knee

When Your Knee Problem Isn’t Really a Knee Problem…

Knee pain is one of the most common complaints that brings people to physical therapy.  Since most of our clients are in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, many of them fear that knee problems could bring an end to their active lifestyles. But that doesn’t have to be the case!

Ironically, the truth about knee problems is that they’re often not actually knee problems!  

There are many folks out there who struggle with chronic pain, instability, and stiffness in their knees. Naturally, they wonder why after countless treatments — sometimes even surgery — their knees still hurt.  Even worse, they start to accept having “bad knees” as a way of life. But if treating the knee directly has been consistently ineffective, it’s time to look elsewhere. Sometimes, even though you may experience pain in your knees, the root of the problem is elsewhere.

Let me explain…

With most knee pain, we can trace the underlying issues to a locality directly below the knee (the ankle or foot) or directly above it (the pelvis, hips, core, and low back). If you don’t engage your core throughout your daily movement, it actually puts a huge amount of strain on your knees. As your legs swing and rotate, the torque that should be occurring through your pelvis and hips gets overloaded onto your knees. So as we age, we may start feeling a sense of wear and tear or weakness in our knees that actually comes from a lifetime of improper movement.

The mainstream medical model is focused largely on treating symptoms rather than identifying the root cause of WHY the problem is occuring in the first place.  Pain pills, injections, and even surgery are often recommended before more conservative and natural treatments! And because these quick fixes are merely addressing the symptoms, the physical problems return for the majority of affected individuals. That’s because those knee issues actually stemmed from a different part of the body, and the knee will continue to be overloaded until those biomechanical problems are addressed directly!

So how do you I figure out what’s causing my knee pain?

Physical therapists go through extensive training in order to analyze your strength, mobility, and body mechanics. These factors allow them to figure out exactly what deficits are contributing to your knee pain, and develop a plan to optimize your movement patterns.

The purpose of a physical therapist is to train you in correct, healthy movement that both relieves your body of pain in the short term and protects it from further damage in the long term.  

Poor balance is a common symptom of a weak core, and being off balance in your movement is bound to affect crucial joints such as your knees — especially in simple everyday activities like climbing stairs and walking. That’s one of the many reasons why we like to combine physical therapy with Pilates in our practice. Pilates-based rehabilitation is a unique, core-centric approach to teaching healthy movement patterns. We love seeing our clients become stronger, balanced, and pain free as they are able to combine the full body workout of Pilates with the practiced eyes of a physical therapist who can identify movement problems and guide the client through correcting them.

The fact is, knee problems are rarely just knee problems, and if you have chronic knee pain, it’s worth asking a physical therapist to help out! If you want more accessible information about knee pain, check out our Facebook Happy Hour video right here! Then you can even request a free discovery session with us to see what PT is all about, and how we can work together to create a customized plan of action for your individual needs. We’d love to hear from you!

Is Running Bad for Your Knees when you’re Over 50?

This is a question we get asked a lot — especially by clients who are getting older and worried that they won’t be able to keep running into their 50s and 60’s.

The short answer? No!

If you experience knee pain when you run, it’s not that you’ve “aged out” of the sport! It’s probably just a biomechanical issue that can be fixed with proper education and strengthening (best offered by a specialist physical therapist).

In fact, research supports that running may actually be GOOD for your knees!

Here are some factors that could be responsible for knee pain when you run:

1) Poor ankle mobility

Ankle mobility affects the way force hits your foot, which can in turn impact your knee. According to Trail Runner Magazine, “if your ankle can’t move adequately, then excess forces are shifted up to the knee. The knee may be forced to flex, and/or rotate, and/or tilt more than it should. This may result in loads that the tissues of the knee can’t handle.”
A physical therapist can help you improve ankle mobility in order to prevent long term damage to the joints, tendons, and ligaments of your knees. This might be especially important for you if you’ve ever sprained or twisted an ankle in the past!

2) Weakness

There’s a widely perpetuated myth out there that runners don’t need to strength train. That’s simply not true! Adding strength training to your running regimen makes it way less likely that you’ll suffer an injury. When it comes to protecting your knees, developing strong lower limb muscles is critical. The hamstring and quadriceps groups play a crucial role in stabilizing the patella, otherwise known as the kneecap. Running is an extremely repetitive action and consequently requires durability and endurance from your joints — something that is lost quickly when you neglect strength training.

3) Unstable core

It may seem like running is all in the legs, but in reality, every physical action begins at the core. You derive all your power, speed, and stamina from your core muscles, and if they are weak, all your joints suffer — especially your knees. A stable core is key for maintaining balance and rhythm. It also keeps your weight distributed between your legs and prevents undue stress from resting on your knees.
Our favorite way to improve core strength is Pilates! If you are a runner but think you could benefit from a stronger core (let’s be honest, we all could), consider giving it a try — for FREE.

4) Running form

It doesn’t matter if you’re a marathon runner or an occasional jogger — running form is important. It determines where and how the impact of every step is distributed throughout your body. If your body mechanics are compromised — for instance, you’re dragging your feet or running with your shoulders tense and shrugged — you’re more likely to suffer from chronic knee pain, or even experience a serious injury. Work with a movement specialist – like the PT’s in our office – to analyze your form and help you be more efficient when you run.

Running is good for you at any age, if you do it right!

Research shows running can actually slow knee arthritis. According to an article published by Outside Online, “animal models show that exercise promotes cartilage thickening and protects its stretchy properties… instead of wearing down your bearings, running may grease them. That’s key, because cartilage thinning and the loss of elasticity are both prominent causes of osteoarthritis.”

Want to make sure you’re running right? Get in touch!

You can even schedule a FREE Discovery Session if you have chronic knee pain (or any type of pain) to talk about what you’re dealing with and figure out the course of action that works best for you.