Knee pain: The ins and outs of patellofemoral pain

By Megan Storey | November 12, 2019

Do you get knee pain? Well this month we are looking at the knee joint and specifically talking about patellofemoral pain. So what does the word patellofemoral actually mean? You can break it down into ‘patello’, which refers to the knee cap, and ‘femoral’ which refers to the long bone (the femur) that runs down your thigh from your hip to your knee (remember, the thigh bone connects to the leg bone, the leg bone connects to the ankle bone, and so on!). The connection between your kneecap and thigh bone is called the patellofemoral joint and we’re going to look at some of the problems associated with this part of the body.

The phrase ‘patellofemoral pain’ is an umbrella term for many causes of pain at the front of the knee. The knee is a complex joint made up of lots of different parts, ranging from the bones that form it, the ligaments that hold the bones together and the various soft tissue parts that form and cross the joint, such as joint capsules, muscles, tendons and fat tissue. All of these (and more) can be involved in pain at the front of the knee.

Knee anatomy

women holding sore knee

The knee can bend and straighten, as well as twist and shear forwards and backwards a little. When our knee is straight, the kneecap, which is held over the knee within the tendon of the quad (thigh) muscles, sits over the end of the thigh bone. As we bend our knee, the surface of the knee cap and end of the thigh bone come closer together and slide over each other in a lovely smooth way, allowing us to perform movements like squatting, jumping, walking and running (basically anything that bends the knee) more efficiently.

What are the causes?

The main causes of patellofemoral pain include overuse of the various parts that make up the knee, or problems that affect the smooth gliding or ‘tracking’ of the kneecap over the end of the thigh bone while moving.

With an overuse issue, think of a person who spends their days walking up and down stairs, or having to squat down constantly. The constant bending and straightening of the knee can lead to overloading of the joint and surrounding tissues, leading to irritation and pain. Another example is that of a runner who may start to get knee pain having recently increased the distance or the amount of days in the week they run.

As we mentioned earlier, the kneecap is held within the quad tendon as it crosses the knee. The quads attach higher up at the pelvis and hips, and down below on the shin bone. So it makes sense that any issue that affects the back, pelvis, hips, ankle and feet can all lead to poor or incorrect tracking of the kneecap over the joint. Common issues here include muscle weakness of the glutes (buttock), quads and lower leg muscles, a twisted thigh or leg bone, and weakness in the ankles and feet, such as having a collapsed arch of the foot. Some people also have a misshapen kneecap, or one that doesn’t sit perfectly over the joint as it should, which can affect the line of tracking over the joint. Throw in having to consider a person’s size and weight, how they walk and run, and the types of footwear they use, and you can see there is a lot to consider.

Unfortunately ladies, this is one of those conditions that affects us more than our male counterparts. Researchers believe this may be because we tend to have wider hips than a man (yep, thanks for that). A woman’s wider pelvis increases the angle where the bones in the knee joint meet. Therefore, leaving more room for imbalance, misalignment or issues moving. Interestingly, research exists that looks into the link between the menstrual cycle and knee pain in women. Whilst the evidence is not 100% conclusive, it is believed that during the different phases of the menstrual cycle, sex hormones can affect the activation of the thigh muscles (quads) and how the body’s nervous system functions during lower limb movement, leaving a woman at potentially higher risk of injury in the knee region. Watch this space… When research catches up, we’ll fill you in on the finer details! What doesn’t break us, makes us stronger eh!

Treatment

So, what can we do to help? Well prevention is key at first:

  • Make sure you’re strong
  • Think about correct knee alignment when walking, running, stair climbing and so on.
  • People within a healthy weight limit also tend to experience less pain.
  • When starting an activity, increase intensity gradually.
  • Always warm up properly.
  • Keep up those stretches!

But if you do have knee pain, it’s best to source help to find out what is going on. Because there can be a variety of reasons for knee pain, there is, of course, a variety of treatments. Here at Physio for Women, we assess all knee pain in a consultation. We figure out what is causing the issue, and help you fix the underlying cause. This could be treatment via massage or other manual therapy techniques, strengthening or stretching exercises, postural alignment work and more.

So, there’s no knee-d to be experiencing knee pain! Come and see us and we’ll get you hopping, skipping and jumping back to normal in no time.