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Causes of Knee Pain

Knee pain can be nagging and debilitating. You may have experiences some discomfort after a workout with a lot of squats. However, if you have ever had persistent pain in your knees, you know it is rather uncomfortable.

Our knees are fairly complex hinge joint made up of four bones and a bunch of ligaments. A hinge joint is one that moves primarily in two direction. In the case of our knee, it bends (flexes) and straightens (extends). The four bones that make up the knee are the femur, tibia, fibula, and patella. A series of joints then hold our knee together.

While it may seem obvious, it is important to note, and understand, that the knee connects our upper leg (thighs/hips) to our lower leg (ankle/foot). Like many other joints in our body, unless there is structural damage, the upper leg and/or the lower leg is usually the cause of our knee pain. (See our post on Back Pain)

Pain Caused by Our Upper Leg

When we have tight hips muscles or tight quad muscles we may experience the tightness as pain in our knee. If you have pain on the outside of your knee, you likely have a tight iliotibial band that runs down the outside of your upper leg. A tight quad muscle may cause pain on the front of your knee. Tightness is the hip muscles, like the hip flexor, can cause the knees to ache when you squat, especially in a front squat.

Pain Caused by Our Lower Leg

Coming from the lower leg, tightness in your ankles may also be the cause of your knee pain. The ability to press your knee straight forward over your toes is called dorsiflexion. Poor dorsiflexion will force the knee to move inward or outward when the foot is planted on the ground and the knee flexes. Imagine a squat. The knee flexes as you squat and starts to move forward in space. If you have tightness in your ankles, the knee joint must shift in or out if you continue to squat. This inward or outward movement will start to cause knee pain, generally on the underside of the knee.

Fixing Your Knee Pain

Most suggestions for fixing knee pain are going to be generalizations with an understanding that a professional evaluation is required before a true diagnosis can be made. This also assume you don’t have a structural issue, like a torn ligament.

If you think tightness in your upper leg is causing your knee pain, start with some foam rolling of the hips. You want to hit the entire hip: front, side, and back. You may then move down to your thigh. Again, you want to foam roll the quad, the outside of the thigh, and even the hamstring. While tight hamstrings usually aren’t the cause of knee pain, it never hurts to mobilize them.

When tightness in your lower leg is the cause of your knee pain, working on ankle mobility will usually fix the problem. Again, we can start with foam rolling. Place the foam roller on the ground and lay your calf on top. Move up and down, side to side, and in circles. You can use the foam roller to loosen your achilles tendon at the base of your calf.

For more information on how often you should foam roll, check out our article on Consistency with Mobility.

Increasing your mobility with stretching requires a better understanding of the cause of your pain. Something like a couch stretch will focus more on quad tightness, while a pigeon stretch will be more helpful if the outside of your knee hurts. Similarly, there are hundreds of ways to stretch your calves. This is where a brief assessment with a professional will come in handy.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to live with knee pain. Address it early and get back to life pain free.