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HealthInfo Canterbury

Knee pain in adults

Knee pain can occur for many reasons. It can be caused by an injury, disease, infection, or overuse. This page covers two less sudden and persistent causes of knee pain – patellofemoral syndrome and Iliotibial band syndrome (also called ITB syndrome).

Other causes of knee pain such as osteoarthritis, bursitis, broken knee bones, broken knee cap, knee cap dislocations, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury and other soft tissue knee injuries are covered on other pages.

The knee is the largest joint in your body. The upper leg bone (femur) and your lower leg bones (tibia and fibula) are connected by ligaments, tendons, and muscles to help stabilise your knee as it goes through its normal range of movement.

Patellofemoral or anterior knee pain

Patellofemoral or anterior knee pain is a term used to describe pain in the front of your knee and around your kneecap (also called the patella). It's sometimes called runner's or jumper's knee because it's common in people who participate in sports – particularly females and young adults. However, patellofemoral or anterior knee pain can also occur in non-athletes. It causes pain and stiffness, making it painful to climb stairs, kneel down, sit for long periods, and other normal activities.

Pain in the front of your knee can occur as a result of an injury to the kneecap (such as a fall, a direct blow, or sudden twisting) or from overuse of the kneecap tendon, which anchors your thigh muscle to your leg.

Iliotibial band syndrome

Iliotibial band syndrome involves inflammation of the Iliotibial band (IT) on the outside of your knee as it rubs against the outside of your knee joint. It's also known as ITB syndrome or ITBFS and is a common condition for runners. Symptoms include pain over the outside of your knee which comes on gradually and gets worse until you have to stop.

Certain factors may make you more susceptible to iliotibial band syndrome. A naturally tight or wide IT band may make you more susceptible to this condition. Weak hip muscles are also a common cause.

How's knee pain diagnosed?

If you're suffering knee pain that isn't going away it’s important that you see your GP, nurse practitioner, or physiotherapist for further assessment. They'll ask questions about recent injuries, and symptoms you've noticed, such as snapping, popping, locking, or feeling like the knee cap is popping out of its groove. Most people with knee pain don't need tests such as an X-ray or an ultrasound scan, but occasionally these tests may be useful to rule out other knee problems.

How are these conditions treated?

You can return to the physical activities you enjoy doing once the underlying causes of your knee pain have been resolved. This may involve periods of relative rest (keeping active but avoiding the activities that produce your pain), as well as doing exercises to restore the strength and flexibility in your knee. Your physiotherapist will also mobilise your knee to relieve your pain and restore your kneecap's normal movement.

Things you can do to help your recovery

Pain relief

Paracetamol (Panadol) can help to reduce the pain. Take it according to the instructions on the packet for three to four days. If pain is still a problem after that, consult your health professional.

You can also use anti-inflammatory pain relief, such as ibuprofen (Nurofen) or diclofenac (Voltaren). These medicines are also called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. As well as relieving pain, they also limit inflammation.

However, NSAIDs can have some serious side effects, especially if you take them for a long time. Two serious side effects are stomach pain and bleeding from your stomach. Some people with asthma, high blood pressure, kidney failure, and heart failure might not be able to take them even for a short time. If you're not sure if you can take NSAIDs, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

If you have tried all of the above treatments and your knee pain is not going away you should return to your GP, nurse practitioner, or physiotherapist, as they may refer you to a musculoskeletal specialist.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created March 2018.


See also:

Knee injuries

What can I do to get better

Pain relief after an injury

Page reference: 470990

Review key: HIHIL-240273