Outer – or lateral – knee pain is common, particularly amongst runners and athletes. However, the actual cause of the pain can be difficult to pinpoint. This part of your knee forms a crossing point for lots of different anatomical structures.
The Iliotibial (IT) band is often blamed for outer knee pain, but there are actually several other possible causes. Read on to find out the most common causes of lateral knee pain.
Iliotibial band syndrome
The ‘IT band’ is a common cause of lateral knee pain in runners. The iliotibial band is a long strip of tissue running right down the outside of your thigh, from hip to knee. Iliotibial band inflammation is an overuse syndrome that often occurs in long-distance runners, cyclists, and other athletes. However, it can be further aggravated by poor flexibility, poor training habits and anatomical imbalances.
How to identify ITB syndrome
ITB pain usually gets worse when you are exercising, as the friction between the ITB and the knee joint is increased. The pain tends to be greatly reduced when you rest the knee.
You may hear snapping or popping noises coming from your knee that accompany the pain, and in severe cases there may be some swelling.
Treating ITB syndrome
The best and most effective treatment for ITB syndrome is to stop the activity that has caused the problem. At least for a few weeks.
You can speed up the healing process by applying ice to the knee and by stretching. A foam roller can be useful to help massage the area during these stretches.
More severe cases may need medical or even surgical intervention. If your knee does not heal after a few weeks of rest and stretching, you should visit your GP.
Lateral meniscus tear
The meniscus is a piece of cartilage that sits between your thigh and shin bones, forming an integral part of the knee joint. The outer section of the meniscus can tear – sometimes suddenly as a result of injury, or sometimes slowly with wear and tear over time.
How to identify a lateral meniscus tear
With this type of outer knee pain, you will probably find yourself unable to go on with your usual sporting activity, as the knee may well give way at the joint.
There may also be some swelling and stiffness, and difficulty extending or flexing the knee.
Treating a lateral meniscus tear
Again, rest is the most important thing, with some ice to alleviate the swelling. You may also be advised to elevate the knee. Physiotherapy may also be helpful once you are ready to start using the knee again.
If the injury is not responding to these treatments, surgical treatment may be necessary.
Lateral collateral ligament sprain
Another band of tissue, the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) is much thinner than the ITB and runs from the thigh down to the femur. This is the ligament that keeps your knee on the straight and narrow, preventing it from bowing out to the side.
Injuries to the LCL are most common after a sudden stop, or a twisting motion. However a strong blow to the inner knee can also do it.
How to identify LCL sprain
When you sprain your LCL you may well hear a ‘pop’ sound, and there will almost certainly be some swelling and pain. You may also feel that the joint is unstable. But one unique identifier of LCL sprain as opposed to other outer knee injuries, is numbness or tingling in the foot. This is because the LCL is located close to a nerve that runs down to your foot.
Treating LCL sprain
Surgery is not usually used to treat LCL sprain, unless it forms part of damage to another structure in the knee. Immediate treatment involves resting the knee, applying ice and elevating the joint to reduce swelling.
This may be followed with splinting the knee, or even using a brace to keep it in place. Physiotherapy can also be useful to get the knee back to its former state.
One more option
If none of these sounds like it could be the cause of your knee pain, and you can’t think of a specific precipitating event, then osteoarthritis can be another cause of outer knee pain. Your GP can refer you for specialist treatment if this is the case.
If you would like some expert advice about your knee pain, the best plan is to have a consultation with Mr Punwar. To book an appointment with Mr Punwar at either of his practice locations, please call his LIPS practice team on 0208 194 8541.