Runner’s knee or jumper’s knee are terms you’ve possibly heard from fellow runners or something you’ve experienced. Both are terms used to refer to pain in the front of the knee. But are usually caused by different issues and require different approaches to rehab.
Which means it’s really important to know the cause and actually type of injury you have! Otherwise you could be doing rehab that’s possibly making it worse.
This is a timely article considering I recently was dealing with some knee issues myself, specifically jumper’s knee after a fitness class I took with a Versaclimber machine. (Look at that good form matters in EVERYTHING we do.)
As we all know, running is NOT inherently bad for our knees and other joints. But sometimes, things go awry due to a variety of factors be it bad shoes, overuse, or an unfortunate step off a curb.
If you’ve been dealing with knee pain after running, there are a lot of potential reasons. Here we are specifically looking at runner’s knee and jumper’s knee. As I found myself trying to distinguish the two, I realized it was probably happening to a lot of others as well. Even the type of knee brace you need, would change between the two.
This article is to help you understand the differences in runner’s knee vs jumper’s knee, so that you can treat it appropriately. The symptoms and causes of both, who might be most at risk, and exercises for each.
What is Runner’s Knee?
According to physical therapist Dr. Lisa Mitro, “Runner’s knee is also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome and this occurs when the biomechanics of the kneecap are off in the trochlear groove it sits in.”
It’s obviously a lot easier to say “runner’s knee” than the actual medical term. But, I digress.
Another way to describe this issue is that the movement pattern of the knee cap, aka the patella which protects the knee joint, on the thigh bone is abnormal. This abnormal movement can cause pain on or underneath the kneecap.
Signs, Symptoms, and Causes of Runner’s Knee
There are a few common symptoms and signs that you may be dealing with runner’s knee.
Runner’s Knee Symptoms:
- Knee pain in front of or behind the kneecap
- Pain worsens when knee is loaded and flexed, aka when kneeling, squatting, climbing stairs, and running
- Crunchy sounds in your knee when climbing stairs or after sitting
Runner’s knee can be caused by a variety of factors.
These include starting a new activity; increasing intensity and duration of an activity like running too quickly leading to overuse; alignment issues in the hip or knee joints and the feet; trauma somewhere along the kinetic chain; a lack of flexibility in the hamstrings and calf muscles; and muscle weakness in the quadriceps (thigh muscles).
Females are also more susceptible to this issue due to how we’re built (think wider hips), but it’s also commonly seen in a variety of athletes from runners to soccer players to skiers.
If this is what you’re dealing with, I’ve written a more in-depth article with a plan to resolve runner’s knee >>
What is Jumper’s Knee?
Jumper’s knee is also known as patellar tendinitis and occurs when there is an inflammatory response to the tendon, which connects your shinbone (tibia) and kneecap. This can manifest as inflammation, patellar tendinosis, which is a thickening of the tendon, or even a tear.
While a training routine with a lot of plyometrics, jumping, rebounding, quick changes could cause inflammation this does seem to often be caused by a singular event. Assuming that training has been ramped up appropriately.
Signs, Symptoms, and Causes of Jumper’s Knee
While the signs and symptoms of jumper’s knee can be similar to runner’s knee due to the location of the pain, there are some key differences to be aware of.
Jumper’s Knee Symptoms:
- Pain in the front of the knee, particularly where the patellar tendon is located
- Pain when jumping, running, walking or otherwise bearing weight
- Pain going downhill and possibly up (asking that tendon to work harder)
Jumper’s knee is often linked to specific trauma and sudden stress on the tendon.
It’s a common injury among basketball and volleyball players as they jump quite a bit in the course of practices and games, but can also occur if you fall or land awkwardly.
Runner’s Knee vs Jumper’s Knee Diagnosis
Like with any new pain or injury, it’s important to get a proper diagnosis.
It’s easy to Google our pains and injuries to self-diagnose. Unfortunately this leads to a never-ending rabbit hole or diagnosing ourselves with the worst case scenario. All of that meaning we aren’t getting the right treatment plan to recover.
While Google can be our friend and point us in a certain direction, it’s important to see the experts.
Visit your doctor or a physical therapist and let them know what’s going on, clearly explaining your symptoms, when they started, and any other pertinent information that may be helpful in the evaluation.
- You likely won’t need any kind of X-ray or MRI for diagnosis (unless they are ruling out other knee injuries)
- They may choose to do an Ultrasound to look for tears in the patellar tendon
- A Dr or Physical Therapist will try to pin point the location of the pain
- Ask about all recent activities, if you noticed a specific incident of onset, what activities are currently causing pain (i.e. doing down hill or even just walking)
Proper and quick diagnosis will ensure you receive the right treatment allowing you to get back to your favorite activities sooner. On the plus side, both of these issues tend to respond well to non-invasive treatment options.
Jumper’s Knee vs Runner’s Knee Treatment
The reason the right diagnosis matters so much is that while treatment might have some similarities, it’s not 100% the same.
And the cause of your injury will change the recommendations provided by your Physical Therapist.
For example, in 2005 I had some runner’s knee that was really being caused by a tight IT Band. Meanwhile this jumper’s knee incident was being made worse by a very tight quad pulling my knee cap.
Following are some basic recommendations, but as noted your specific situation may need other options.
- In both cases, sharp and intense pain is your signal to stop doing whatever activity you’re doing. However, most PT’s now believe you can still run as long as that discomfort stays in an acceptable range.
- Compression may help with runner’s knee by providing stability, while with Jumper’s knee it could promote more blood flow to the area for healing.
- Runner’s knee usually requires that we pull out of speed work and longer runs.
- Jumper’s knee you may be able to run flat surfaces and just avoid hills (this is what I did)
- Runner’s knee you may start in right away with rehab like monster walks where as with jumper’s knee we are avoiding squats and lunges
- Jumper’s knee may start with a basic supine front leg raise, which wouldn’t do much for runner’s knee
- Cortisone shots for knee pain are often provided as an option. PLEASE know this shouldn’t be done frequently, it has some very real long term negative impacts.
In both injuries, we know that additional hip strength, hip stability and glute work will overtime help. This is simply a general rule for ensuring our knees feel good all the time.
Treatment for Runner’s Knee
Once you’ve been diagnosed with runner’s knee and addressed the cause(s), there are several treatment options. You may need a combination of them to find relief, but the good news is that you will find relief!
Treatments can include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications (nsaids)
- Physical therapy to address muscle weaknesses and tightness
- Kinesio taping to help maintain proper tracking of the kneecap
- Evaluating and changing training intensity
According to Dr. Lisa, “Rehab for runner’s knee includes addressing patellar tracking, knee and hip exercises, and progressively loading the knee in a flexed position while keeping rehab exercises pain free.”
Exercises for Runner’s Knee
As noted this is just a starting point, I’ve written a lot more detail on runner’s knee recovery.
- Patellar glides – make sure a PT has shown you how to do this. I’ve done it plenty, no worries it doesn’t hurt, just feels weird.
- IT Band Stretches
- Monster walks – mini band around feet or ankles, slight squat and walking side to side (infinitely more effective than a clamshell)
- Hard contractions – placing a towel under the knee and pressing in to the ground and holding for 5-10 seconds
Taping truly has been a huge key for me in continuing to move through different injuries over the last decade.
Treatment for Jumper’s Knee
Treating jumper’s knee can be very similar to runner’s knee, including the use of rest and the RICE method, anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, bracing, and physical therapy. It is important to note that sometimes jumper’s knee can have a longer recovery period than runner’s knee and may require surgery in severe cases.
In regards to treating jumper’s knee, Dr. Lisa shared that particularly with tendonitis, “It is acceptable to have a small amount of pain when going through rehab exercises as you are trying to load the tendon appropriately.”
Jumper’s Knee Exercises
Some initial ideas to get you going on recovery:
- Standing quadriceps stretch – remember to think not just about getting the foot to your butt, but the foot going towards the ceiling. Try to keep your knees together, so you aren’t pulling the leg backwards.
- Front leg raises – laying on your back with one knee bent. You raise and lower the other leg up to your bent knee height.
- Glute bridge– Placing both feet on the floor and pressing up to hold for 3 seconds, then lower down. Think about the glutes really doing the work.
- Standing Single Leg Balance – Great for so many things, try to work up to holding a side for 1 minute. This will engage all kinds of muscles in the lower leg.
Preventing Runner’s Knee and Jumper’s Knee
There are a couple of other things I wanted to point out regarding these two issues and they focus on prevention.
First, and I may sound like a broken record, but a doing our pre-run stretches before our athletic activities is incredibly important. This serves to wake muscles up, generate some warmth, and get our muscles and joints ready for what we’re about to ask them to do. It is also excellent injury prevention.
Second, pay attention to your training intensity. Gradually build mileage and/or intensity over time. Doing too much too soon or too fast is a recipe for overuse injuries to develop.
As noted I’ve got a lot more details on runner’s knee to really help ensure it doesn’t come back!
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