Exercising with Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner’s Knee)

Do your knees ever snap, crackle, and pop when walking up the stairs?

Mine do. And you could have patellofemoral pain syndrome, like me.

As someone who has been involved in regular exercise since age 15, my knees are well worn. I’ve never been an ‘athlete’ per se, but I’ve run my fair share of 5-10k races, 2 half marathons, one marathon, and logged many, many days at the gym.

Patellofemoral Pain syndrome, runner's knee

In my quest for the perfect physique (I am still looking for it!), I wouldn’t always make the smartest choices when it came to exercise and pain. I would lift heavy through knee pain while doing squats or leg press, spend an hour on whatever cardio machine looked good that day, and ignore all the signs that my body was telling me. Blame it on stubbornness or competitiveness or just plain stupidity, if I wanted to exercise, my knees weren’t going to stop me.

When I entered my early 30’s, the aches and pains in my knees worsened and eventually started to affect my ability to exercise. I’d have pain after working out, but after a day off from the gym, my knees would feel better, and I would spend the next day on a stair climber for an hour. Factor into a 4-5 workouts per week on a regular basis and it makes sense that my knees are in the painful state they’re in.

A Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome Diagnosis

As I did some research, I realized that I likely had patellofemoral pain syndrome or “runner’s knee.”  Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a broad term that defines pain in front of the knee and around the knee area. Because knee joint pain can be caused by many things, I most likely concluded that my pain was due to overuse, improper tracking of the kneecap, and/or chondromalacia patella (a softening and breakdown of articular cartilage under the kneecap that can cause pain and inflammation). Since I’m a licensed (but not practicing) registered nurse, I felt fairly confident that I nailed my diagnosis.

My knees creaked so terribly going up the stairs. I would be in pain while squatting, lunging, sitting, kneeling, or climbing stairs. I tried resting and laying off the workouts, but I wasn’t feeling any better so I got impatient.

Patellofemoral Pain syndrome, runner's knee
My knees, way back in 2014

I finally caved and went to see an orthopedic doctor about five years ago and he confirmed runner’s knee. The x-ray of my knees showed I still had a decent amount cartilage in the joint, didn’t have any bone on bone contact, and my kneecaps appeared to be in place.  I wasn’t prescribed an MRI, cortisone injections, nor was assessed for proper patella (knee cap) tracking. I was only prescribed physical therapy and was sent on my way.

After 2 months of good physical therapy and a complete functional movement screen (that I passed), both knees still hurt. I was incredibly upset, considering that no matter what I did to help fix the problem and alleviate the pain – foam rolling, stretching, strengthening, icing, resting, even supplements (Glucosamine, Chondroitin) and anti-inflammatory drugs, etc – nothing was working. It still hurt to run, use the elliptical machine, or climb stairs.

An Improper Alignment

As I looked further into patellofemoral pain syndrome, I learned that this condition happens to many people because of the way the kneecap tracks or glides within the groove of the femur (thigh bone). Improper tracking can cause inflammation and irritation. I remembered my kneecap snapping out of place many times but never thought anything of it. I also realized I had a very mobile knee. What surprised me most was learning about the ‘Q (quadriceps) angle’, and how women often suffer from knee pain because of a wider pelvis. Because women tend to have a larger pelvis, the angle formed between the hip and knee joints is increased.  This larger than ‘normal’ angle makes the quad muscle pull on the knee cap, which can cause improper patellar tracking in its groove. (See more here.)

Patellofemoral Pain syndrome, runner's knee

My wide hips and unstable knee caps seemed to fit my hypothesis that my knee wasn’t tracking properly.

I realized that all of my repetitive motion on ellipticals and treadmills with a knee joint improperly aligned was causing me a lot of pain, inflammation and likely joint damage. Even when I was lifting light weights (leg press or squats) I was inflicting damage and causing pain because of improper kneecap position.

After reading up on how to fix knee tracking, I watched videos on how to tape to keep your kneecap in place. I decided that I would try taping my knees, pulling my lateral kneecaps towards midline. I decided it was worth a shot to try it; after all, tape was cheaper than visiting another doctor.

Knee Taping

To my surprise, after weeks of taping my knees, my knee pain lessened. I could get on the elliptical machine, put in 45 minutes to an hour and know that I wouldn’t be in pain afterwards. With my continued lower body workouts omitting anything that hurt the knees (quads basically) and no heavy lifting, I continued to see improvement.

Taping your knee involves two kinds of tape – cover roll stretch and leukotape. The cover roll stretch tape basically acts as a layer to protect the skin from the leukotape, as well as providing a good base for the leukotape to stick to. The leukotape is a strong rayon-backed rehab tape that contains zinc oxide adhesive for a secure fit. I always use the McConnell Taping Technique to put my knee in proper alignment. The inward pull from the tape secures my knee for the duration that I wear the tape. Watch the video below to learn how to tape your knees with the McConnell method.

After five years of taping, I can tell you that it works. The tape never falls off or comes undone on its own; it doesn’t hurt to apply it, wear it, or remove it (although it is easier to remove if the tape gets wet); and it’s affordable (only $14 for one roll of both types of tape. See the end of the post on purchasing info.)

My Results

Today, I can even run without severe knee pain during or afterwards, although I tend to stay away from running altogether. I no longer use stair climber machines, do lunges or squats, nor use the leg extension machine (it’s terrible for your knees) but I can continue to use treadmills, ellipticals and bikes for my usual hour routine. I only tape before my workouts and once I’m done, I remove the tape and I’m all good.

There are days however, when my knees still hurt. Sometimes I exercise too much or push myself a little too hard and my knees let me know. The tape isn’t magic; using the tape will not keep you injury free or free from pain. However, it may allow you to workout with minimal or no pain and while the tape keeps your kneecap properly aligned, the damaged bone and cartilage can heal.

Obviously there’s nothing out there (other than surgery) that will give me young knees again. For all the years I’ve been taping my knees, the cartilage has improved a bit and my pain has lessened, but my knees will never be what they once were.

Final Thoughts

So as the years pass by, I still continue to workout (much smarter than before!) and tape my knees. I honestly don’t think I could have continued to exercise as much as I have the last five years if I had not discovered taping. It truly made a huge difference in how my knees felt during and after exercise. Depending on the cause of your injury, taping may or may not work for you, but it can’t hurt to try.

I mean, I still creak when I walk up the stairs, but that’s just something I have to ignore and know that the creak will be with me for the long run.

If you’re looking to try the McConnell Taping Technique, here are the specific tapes I use: Cover-Roll Stretch 2 inches x 10 yards and Leukotape P 1.5 inches x 15 yards. You can also buy a combo pack (one of each roll) from Amazon here. 

(Because I wholeheartedly believe these tapes have made a difference in my knee health, I am including the Amazon links for the tape I purchase in the above text. I do make a small commission for purchases made through the above links, but this doesn’t affect you or your pricing.) 

For another good video tutorial on taping your knees, click here.

Patellofemoral Pain syndrome, runner's knee
My Leukotape (brown) on top and cover roll stretch tape (white)

Do you suffer from knee pain? Were you diagnosed with patellofemoral pain syndrome? How do you cope with it? Let me know in the comments.

Happy travels and be good to your knees!


thesteadmanclinic.com, mayoclinic.org, orthoco.com, verywellfit.com, orthoinfo.aaos.org

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Information provided on this web site is for general information purposes only.

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