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Health answers: What is runner’s knee?

Q. What is runner’s knee?

A. “Runner’s knee” refers to several possible conditions that cause patellofemoral pain, or aching around the front of the kneecap. “It’s a grab bag,” says John Richmond, chair of orthopedic surgery at New England Baptist Hospital. The pain often results from an overuse injury, which develops over time when you over-stress a particular part of the joint, rather than because of a single traumatic injury. Running is the most common cause, he says, because it’s popular and generates high forces on the knee, but other kinds of exercise and sports can irritate and inflame the knee.

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Runner’s knee often arises when people increase the stress on the knee too quickly, such as starting a running habit without training up gradually. It can also have a genetic cause, such as a misalignment of the kneecap, which predisposes you to pain. Or the culprit could be flat feet, bad footwear, poor training habits, strained tendons, or weak or tight muscles around the knee.

Whatever the cause, it’s important to get the right diagnosis and rule out other knee problems, such as a torn meniscus or the beginnings of osteoarthritis. The next challenge is figuring out “what’s the cause of your specific runner’s knee,” Richmond says, because treatment will vary case by case. Typical treatment involves taking oral anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen to quell inflammation, seeing a physical therapist to stretch and strengthen muscles around the knee, and modifying your activities or changing footwear.

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