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What causes knee pain while running?

Knee joint pain during exercise is probably the most popular complaint when patients go to doctors who deal with joint disease. What causes knee pain while running?

What causes it?

The most common cause of these symptoms is patellofemoral pain syndrome. This is a nasty, hard-to-pronounce term for pain in the anterior patellofemoral joint, which you may experience while running, squatting, stair walking, or squatting.

Another common cause of knee joint discomfort under physical exertion is osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is caused by the wear and tear of the articular cartilage, which prevents it from fulfilling its protective and shock-absorbing function. The disease has been on the rise in recent years, often making its debut at the age of 30 to 40 years or even earlier. In addition to the so-called mechanical (i.e. pressure-induced) pain in the knee joints, osteoarthritis causes transient pain and stiffness in the morning, “starting” joint pain that occurs at the beginning of movement and joint swelling.

Knee pain during running can also be caused by inflammation of the patellar ligament. This condition is figuratively referred to as jumping knee because of the most typical mechanism of occurrence: while jumping, abrupt tension of the anterior thigh muscles causes micro-tears and damage to the patellar ligament. The maximum amount of pain for this condition is localised under the kneecap. Pain occurs when running, jumping, climbing stairs and squatting. Knees have joint pouches, or bursae, which are fluid-filled sacs that act as spacers between the moving parts to reduce friction. Excessive strain can cause bursae to become inflamed – bursitis develops, another cause of knee joint pain.

What to do?

In all situations where exercise causes pain in the knee joints, the first thing to do is to modify the exercise regime: temporarily reduce the load, avoid movements that cause pain, and include exercises to strengthen and stretch the muscles. In some cases, such as osteoarthritis, it is advisable to switch to less traumatic forms of exercise (walking, swimming, cycling, elliptical trainers) and be sure to normalise the body weight. If necessary, medication such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, diclofenac and others) can be used. Dynamic orthoses (knee pads) and kinesio tapes can be used during exercise.

Intense and sudden pain in the knee joint that occurs at the peak of exercise is probably due to an acute injury. This can be sprains and tears of the anterior and posterior thigh muscles, tears of menisci (cushioning cartilage located inside the knee joints) and tears of the ligaments of the knee joint. All of these conditions are characterised by acute pain and limited mobility in the knee when you fall, hit it, land poorly after a jump, accelerate intensely, or twist sharply in the knee joint.

When running, remember that any joint pain that occurs during exercise requires attention, careful assessment and correction. Take good care of your knees, and you will enjoy and benefit from exercise.