Running Reader Q: My Knee Hurts When I Run. Should I Get a Brace?

Happy Knees Happy RunnerLaurel has recently returned to running after taking some time off to focus on getting a masters degree. “I was really into it, but I kept getting shin splints,” says Laurel. “When my schedule got tighter with classes, I sort of stopped working a run into my day because it was painful anyway.”

Now, she’s back—the diploma is on her wall and she’s moved to a new city where running routes abound! “I’m excited about running again,” she says. “I’m ramping up slowly, but now my left knee is starting to bother me. Should I start wearing a brace?”

I’m a big believer in listening to your body. Pain is a message that something is wrong. Rather than trying to mask it with a brace, I think Laurel needs to figure out what’s really causing the problem—especially since she’s had injuries in the past. To double-check my diagnosis, I reached out to New York City-based rehabilitation specialist Nadya Swedan, M.D.

Dr. Swedan, what could be causing Laurel’s knee pain? “It sounds like she’s experiencing patellofemoral knee pain, also known as runner’s knee. The associated pain could be stemming from a couple of places—she may have injured the cartilage beneath the kneecap, or it could be tendonitis. Everyone runs differently, so depending on her gait Laurel could have gotten runner’s knee because her leg muscles are weak or imbalanced, or the muscles and tendons connected to the knee have become tight from overuse. A tight IT band, or tight quads and hamstrings are often the culprits.”

How do you feel about braces and compression bands? Would they help Laurel? “Those braces and bands are sporting goods store solutions, and I would never recommend them. Sure, using one takes the tension off the power tendon around the joint, but it would be dangerous to slide one on and continue running. It would become a crutch for Laurel—soon she wouldn’t be able to run without it, because it would change the alignment of her knee and lead to injuries elsewhere. Her best bet is to focus on fixing the root of the problem with strength training and stretching.”  

What should she do to alleviate the pain? “Ice is her knee’s best friend. It will alleviate any swelling, decrease the inflammation, and help her body’s own healing mechanisms kick in. She could also take some ibuprofen, but I definitely don’t want her to pop a couple and then head out for a run—that might make her knee worse.” 

Can Laurel keep running? “She can run a little bit, nice and easy, but if the pain continues she should get off her feet. Cycling, with the bike seat raised a bit higher to take pressure off the knee, and the elliptical machine would be good cardio options for her. Rollerblading would also be really great right now, because it strengthens the inner and outer thigh muscles—areas that tend be weak in runners.”

Thanks, Dr. Swedan. I think Laurel will be happy to hear this!

Laurel is a smart cookie, so I’m pretty sure she’ll listen to her body and follow the doctor’s advice. (I just hope she doesn’t sign up for roller derby and find herself with a whole new set of injuries!)

Runner’s knee is super common—have you ever experienced it? What did you do to get rid of it?