If you are an avid runner, you might be familiar with a painful condition known as runner's knee.
Also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome, runner's knee is a general term that refers to a sharp pain, swelling or discomfort behind or around the kneecap that acts up after a run.
"It is the most common overuse injury among runners," says associate professor Paul Chang Chee Cheng, senior consultant and director, Sports Medicine Service, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
In Singapore, up to 50 per cent of runners suffer from the condition.
Such knee pain tends to strike runners because of the repeated stress and impact across the knee during a run, which can lead to the degeneration or damage of the cartilage beneath the knee cap. "But runner's knee is not merely a runner's ailment — it can affect athletes who engage in other sports like biking and jumping too," clarifies Chang.
There are also other reasons which contribute to runner's knee, such as weak thigh muscles, flat feet, bone malalignment (caused by conditions like bow legs or knock knees) as well as a direct trauma to the knee, like a fall. Tendinitis which affects the soft tissues around the knees can also cause pain after running.
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Symptoms of runner's knee
You may have runner's knee if you have:
- A sharp pain behind or around the kneecap
- A sharp pain when you bend your knee, such as when you are walking, squatting, kneeling, or running
- Swelling in the knee
- Popping or grinding sensations in the knee
If you have been experiencing these signs and symptoms, it would be wise to get your knees checked by a sports physician or an orthopaedic surgeon.
"Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you may need to go through tests like an X-ray, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT) scan," says Chang.
Related video: How to heal Achilles tendinitis
Rest those knees!
When injured, you should always allow some time for recovery. However, it's best to start correct exercises early before muscle weakness sets in.
The best way to treat runner's knee is to take a short break from the activity that has been causing the pain. "Joggers who need to avoid putting weight on their knee can temporarily consider another sport like swimming or gym-training instead," suggests Chang. However, seeking professional advice on shoes, training regime and running technique is essential before going back to running.
If there is a swelling in your knee, applying ice packs to the area for a few minutes, every few hours, will help to alleviate the pain. Alternatively, use a knee guard to lend extra support or elevate your knee with a pillow.
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Your doctor might also prescribe anti-inflammatory painkillers such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve the pain. Stretching and strengthening exercises may also help.
However, in severe cases, surgery to remove the damaged cartilage or to realign the kneecap may be useful, says Chang.
How to prevent your knee from acting up in future
Even after you've healed, consider taking some preventive measures to stop runner's knee from acting up in future.
- Wear the right running shoes: Be sure to do your research and buy a pair of running shoes that suit your feet. Don't pick solely based on aesthetics and branding; consider the cushioning (air, gel or wedge) and match it to your exercise needs. If you have flat feet, the solution may be as simple as getting custom-made arch supports.
- Stretch, stretch, stretch: Based on a UK study, doing stretching and strengthening exercises before training sessions can help to reduce the incidence of anterior knee pain (AKP) in recruits. So consider doing stretching and strengthening exercises to improve flexibility and prevent muscle tear.
- Don't be overzealous in your training routine: Never increase your running mileage or switch terrains suddenly. Chang explains: "Your body will need time to adapt to the longer distances or change in running terrain to prevent runner's knee."
- Get professional advice on your running style, technique and frequency and distance of runs.
- Try other sports: Cross-training (biking or swimming) will allow your knee and body to recover between long runs.
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