Knees selflessly support you from the moment your feet stumble out of bed in the morning, funneling the weight from your hip down to your ankle. Running, jumping, walking, and stair climbing all possibly contribute to knee pain. In this article, we will discuss the basic anatomy of the knee and ways to keep them healthy, supported, and pain free!
What’s In A Knee?
The knee joint is where the femur (thigh bone) meets the tibia & fibula (lower leg bones), and is capped off with a patella (knee cap). It is the most complicated joint of the body and supports almost all of a person’s body weight! Due to the number of bones, ligaments and tendons involved, there are many reasons why knee pain may occur from misalignment, overuse and degeneration. Some injuries include tendonitis, ligament tears, arthritis, or iliotibial band syndrome. (The IT band is a ligament extending from the pelvis to the lower leg that tightens as we walk or run).
The tendons, ligaments, muscles, cartilage and bursae (fluid-filled sacs) work together to stabilize, absorb shock, flex, extend, and even slightly rotate the knee. The quadriceps (thigh muscles), allow for extension of the knee (kicking a soccer ball). The hamstrings, adductors (inner thigh), and calf muscles are responsible for knee flexion and external rotation (jumping rope and the Charlie Chaplin stroll). Lastly, the iliotibial band (down the side of the leg) stabilizes the knee.
What Causes Knee Pain?
As an ex gymnast who tumbled for 8 years, then proceeded to run the concrete streets of Los Angeles, I developed tight IT bands which led to knee pain. As a yoga teacher, I have found an overabundant number of students with tightness in both IT bands and hamstrings. This is true both of athletes and couch potatoes!
As we have become a society of chronic sitters, the increasingly tight IT band results in lack of mobility in the hip and the knee joint. When we sit for long periods of time, the muscles essentially dry out like shrink-wrap, tightening and limiting mobility. Too much sitting contributes to weight gain, which can cause knee pain as the excess weight of the body is funneled through the small joint. The patella houses the thickest layer of cartilage in the body, protecting it from the pressure of the quadriceps when the knee is flexed, as in stair climbing. Stair climbing can put as much as six hundred pounds of pressure on the patella, not to mention the added weight created by obesity.
On the flip side, for athletes, habitual physical motion creates strength but also tightness in the muscles. Overuse of the knee can create a variety of problems: ligaments tear and muscles strain, especially from twisting motions. Irritation and inflammation develop resulting in tendonitis. Bursitis is caused by inflammation of the fluid filled sacs (bursae) surrounding the knee brought on by trauma, gout, or arthritis.
Life Without Knee Pain
There is hope, and it starts with self-care! I have a deep love for movement and every week you can find me practicing yoga, dancing, performing aerial arts, and running. Here are a few recommendations to live knee-pain free.
1. Yoga/Yoga Tune Up®
Stretching the muscles that surround and support the knee is vital for knee health. Yoga is one of the best ways I know to keep pain away. Hip limitation directly affects knee pain, so the more available your hips are, the greater amount of mobility you will have in your knee. The Yoga Tune Up® Post Athletic Stretch DVD is a wonderful aid to keep the hips, back and knees supple.
2. Massage/Foam Roller
Massage can alleviate tight muscles, especially the thigh and IT band, allowing for freedom in the knee. Foam rollers can be purchased for under $30 and massage yourself by rolling away the tightness!
3. Yoga Tune Up® Balls
My ALL TIME favorite self-care tool are the Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls. Their size allows for greater manipulation of the muscles, tissue, tendons, and ligaments to relieve pain.
For more information on the muscles of the knee and advice on how to relieve knee pain, be sure to read these YTU blogs as well:
The Slimmest Part of Your Knee: It’s Not Just About Hemlines
It’s always a great reminder that when there is pain in one area that the source may come from somewhere else. Asking clients or students who have knee pain if they have tight hips, tight inner thighs, or a tight Iliotibial Band, or previous injuries in any of those areas will be super helpful on their path to healing. Such a complex joint—the knee!
“Hip limitation directly affects knee pain, so the more available your hips are, the greater amount of mobility you will have in your knee” urgh, somehow I always forget the body is connected. Great article on the knee. I struggle with pigeon pose and have very tight hips and glutes and well, must of me. But I love the insight stated above.
So good to know that hip limitation directly affects knee pain. Love the foam roller to loosen IT Band. It is also great to understand stretching muscles around the knee will help alleviate k nee pain.
Insightful read! It’s important to message and foam roll. We always talking about going to the gym and pushing our bodies but the rehabilitations are just as important if not more!
I had never really thought of how the hip adductors played a roll in my inner knee pain. I’ve always blamed it on the tightness in my hips and have been working to strengthen them. I hadn’t even considered before that it could also be an imbalance between the outer and inner. That the adductors have just as much of a roll to play. From yoga I have been able to increase my external rotation range and strength but I have dont very little work on the adductors. I am looking forward to rolling them and strengthening them to see what impact it has on my knees.
I have a lot of knee pain and have tight hamstrings. I’ve been working on hip opening using YTU movements such as Leg Stretch 1, 2, and 3 and rolling out daily for the last week and I can’t believe how it has lessened my pain in that short period of time. I’ll be keeping this up. So glad I realized how well this worked before I spent a lot of time and money seeking medical help and possibly a surgery.
Thanks for the reminder to loosen up the hips will do a lot for your knees. I was having inner knee pain awhile ago and I was kneading the Sartorius muscle and rolling it on a foam roller, it was uncomfortable at first, but it eventually went away.
A great reminder to look further uptown of the knee to help eleveate pain. Also a reminder to get off our butts and sit a little less! What I love about this blog as well, is that it reminds those who are in fact very active to pause and take care of your fascia! The benefits of taking just a few minutes a day, or few times a week to roll out and give your joints some loving is so sooooo important and of course beneficial!
Hello, I just got my yoga balls yesterday. I have been having trouble with my knee as well. How would I use the yoga balls on my knee. I’m not sure if using them on the back of my knee is okay. Should I just use them like a roller on my quads, hamstrings but not the actual knee? Thanks!
[…] How to Relieve Knee Pain […]
Daily maintenance is the key to alleviating pain and saving yourself from costly costly doctor bills. I use my YTU balls and Alpha ball on my legs daily, another spot that I place toted balls is on the supra patellar pouch, pinning and spinning, and taking the leg flexed at the knee into external and internal rotation.
Thanks Tiffany. As a chronic desk sitter these days, I have developed pain in my hips and also have more pain in my knees than ever before. I have osteoarthritis in my knees but have managed it fairly well until the past few months, when I also started having hip pain where I have never had pain before. I have been exploring the areas that I think need my attention around the hips, and TFL and IT are in there with the glut medius. What I had not really considered (duh) is that whatever is happening in the hips is also playing out with my knees. Thanks for helping me to make that connection and continue me on my journey for solutions. I will definitely be jumping on the foam roller for the IT band and keeping up with the YTU balls at the hips and knees, as well as exercise to strengthen the hip muscles that are likely short and tight.
I occasionally have knee pain especially when I run and don’t pay attention to my stride and posture. Massage with the therapy balls and awareness seem to be most helpful for keeping the pain at bay. A related post mentioned the kneehab video so I’ll check that out too.
You were an ex gymnast and I was an ex dancer. Yoga helps immensely as well as physical therapy.
The massage roller for the IT band is excellent. I have thighs hips and luckily it hasn’t effected my knees yet, I’m glad I found YTU and learned the give my attention to the surrounding tissues in the hopes of preventing the onset of knee pain in the near future
For years I would have knee pain that appeared and disappeared frequently but not ever badly enough for me to bother asking a physio or massage therapist about. When I finally figured out how tight my iliotibial band was it all started to make so much sense. Now leg stretch #3 and my YTU therapy balls are my best friends. I love the feeling of empowerment that comes with learning what is going on under the hood of our bodies and am excited to share others how to become their own body’s mechanic!
So informative for such a common ailment and the bonus is that it can be self-treated if addressed before significant injury takes place. As you describe, the IT band tightness afflicts those of us who move and those of us who don’t so anyone can benefit from these hints. Thank you for such a broad spectrum of information – the anatomical background and the approach to target arising issues.
Thanks for triggering some additional possibilities to work with…and through. The cartilage on the back of my patella (both) as well as the cartilage on the front face of the joint have worn away because of a misalignment of my feet/knees/hips since I was a child. The kneecap did not track right over the face of the joint, earing the cartilage completely away. I’m now dealing with osteoarthritis in these areas. Can be very painful on long hikes and any downward force on my kness (jump-rope etc) or lateral movement sports (basketball) are pretty much out of the question. I have been able to stabilize my knees significantly in the 10 years I have been practicing yoga, but getting back on to yoga tune up balls and helping my tight muscles and IT band to actually release and help restore proper alignment is really key….while stabilizing (strengthening muscles) the knee in proper alignment!!! Thanks for the reminder and the tips.
“Self Care” is such a simple concept yet one of the hardest concepts to remember as it relates to healing your body. The list of props to help relieve pain, especially the “massage roller” and “tune up balls.”
[…] How to Relieve Knee Pain […]
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This article immediately calls my attention! I used to be able to hike for 15-20 miles straight when I was younger. I slipped during a winter hike and hurt my IT band, since then I was never able to do a long distance hike. I went to hospital for x-ray and Chinese clinic for acupuncture and so far I haven’t seen a great improvement. I have been practicing yoga. And I can’t wait to use the learn how to use yoga tune-up balls to message my IT bands. Hope this time it will work!
The anatomy of knee is well delivered in this article. It motiveats the readers to pay more attention to their activities and how avoid knee pain, and in case of having pain how to deal with it. Thanks
Nice article, I can’t wait to try a few of these techniques. I haven’t tried the yoga balls on my knees yet. Self care feels oh so good, and definitely part of being a good teacher, take care of yourself so you can teach others.
As a yoga teacher I have a hard time practicing what I preach. I am just realizing the great need for self care. Of course it is frequently an injury that brings a need like this to our attention. I have these tools and I now plan to put them into action. We need to heal ourselves first in order to then help others.
VEry informative. I have been a runner for most of my life but since I got the first twinge in my left knee a few years ago I stopped altogether. I want to be a healthy older person. So I have been researching as to what would make the knee painful. Since working with the yoga tune up balls on my hips and it band, the twinges have all but disappeared.
I tore my medial meniscus last September playing tennis requiring surgery that was performed in December. Since then, I have had no relief to my knee pain and extensive build-up (swelling) of synovial fluid (cups) around the knee. I used my Yoga Tune Up Balls to massage the IT band as suggested in the blog and found that the pain and possibly the swelling were reduced. I also found that rolling the balls around the whole knee joint seemed to give me some relief.
I recently started noticing a clicking in my left knee with no pain so it was very interesting to read the different muscles that affect the knee joint & what actions may be attributing to this issue. Well written & easy to understand 🙂
I was drawn to this article because though I’ve never suffered a direct injury to my knee I’ve been experiencing minor pain in my right knee. I am active about 5 times a week wether practicing yoga or weight training and running at the gym so naturally I have aches and pains. I consider myself to be mildly kinesthetic and wanted to discover a way to banish the issue. It is slap-on-the-head obvious that to get to the root of the knee joint pain would be to stretch out the surrounding muscles and ligaments. Tiffany has a great Happy baby modified exercise link on a related blog that is great for working out the IT band. As a yogini who strives to deepen her meditation practice I find that sitting cross legged begins to put pressure on my right knee joint after time so I found that looping a canvas strap around the patella and tightening it helps to stabilize the joint which results in comfort so my mind can be still instead of constantly thinking of my knee pain!
Thank you for this well written blog. I have had surgery on both knees from overuse,
running and a ski accident. They are pretty strong and pain free right now but only
because I do stretch my IT band and everyting around my knees and hips. The more
I learn about my body the less it hurts. I was just in a Zumba class last night. As I was
enjoying the dance movements and sweating I heard the teacher say “this should hurt”!
What a thing to say. All of those students who are not so aware of self care are hurting
themselves on purpose and probably don’t even know the way to stretch everything out
Karla! Love that you shared it with your loved one. Hope he gets inspired to roll out his IT band! ~T
I was reading this article then I stopped and called my boyfriend upstairs to finish it out loud. He is a construction worker, with horrible knee problems due to him walking up and down stairs everyday with materials on his back. We both received a lot of insight on what to do and why certain pain is happening in his knee. Thank you
Great article. I’m a runner and used to get chronic knee pain. Once I started doing yoga and discovered how to stretch my IT band, the pain has eased. As your article states, I bet opening my hips through yoga also had something to do with the pain relief. And the Yoga Tune-up Balls help my tight IT bands so much!
I haven’t tried using the YTU balls for knee pain but I am looking forward to trying it out!
As an ex-gymnast and current runner, knee pain is unfortunately a very familiar feeling to me. Thank you for the exercises and information.
I never paid any attention to my knees until I began to run this summer. They certainly made me pay attention! They became swollen and it was difficult to walk at all. I got orthotics for the running sneakers, but it’s good to know I can strengthen muscle to protect my knee. More yoga classes should discuss strengthening knee poses. I only ever hear about “locking the knee” in class.
I had a fill knee reconstruction many years ago and am prone to sprains and tears. As a result, I’ve been obsessed with strengthening the muscles around my knee joint, never really considering that while I was strengthening, I was also tightening everything up to a degree that has probably caused some compression within the joint itself. The therapy balls have already made a difference (one class) in how quickly my knee is recovering from overuse. I think using the balls to help relieve tightness and tension in the area of my knee joint has created a little more space for the joint and while I’m not pushing the range of motion thing too hard, it feels like it is a lot more open.
Great article for reminding us that stregthening and stretching the muscles in and around our knees can keep our knees pain free.
I loved this article. I used to run a lot and I have backed off over the years. Now that I have a much better understanding of my knee anatomy, I can tell that my IT band has been a source of pain for me. I will be using my yoga tune up balls to explore ways to work on this area.
I tore my ACL in one knee and had miniscus surgery in the other so I know all about knee pain. I like how your blog gives a good overview of the anatomy of the knee and I’ll use my Yoga tune up balls to work on knee-related muscles like the quadriceps and hamstrings…
Nice..this really clearly laid out what the IT band is and why I have knee pain!
I found this article to be intriguing that both couch potatoes and athletes both have tight IT bands and hamstrings. When i work out on the stair master and do floor exercises like lounges it causes pressure on my thigh muscles (quadriceps). So I am very careful on how much pressure I apply to my patella.
I agree; this is a great breakdown of all the essential elements that make up a joint that allows us such freedom! As a dancer, learning how to protect my knees in a loving way came after many years of avoidable injuries and pain. Fortunately, I found yoga at the right time and my body is thoroughly enjoying the benefits of a more holistic approach to strengthening and lengthening! (My knees are very thankful.)
I found this to be very well written and informative. I can feel the tightness in my IT bands, even as I sit here. Tuesday yoga is calling me!