What is patellofemoral pain syndrome?

Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a knee condition that is used to describe pain in the front of the knee and around the patella or kneecap. This knee condition occurs when the cartilage is worn down or roughened. Patellofemoral pain syndrome affects athletes but can impact non-athletes as well.

Causes of patellofemoral pain syndrome

There are a variety of causes of patellofemoral pain syndrome including:

  • Kneecap alignment — patellar tracking disorder occurs when the kneecap shifts out of place; when this happens, the pain associated with the shift could be attributed to patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Physical activity — forceful running, walking or playing sports could contribute to patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Dramatic increase in physical activity — a person can develop patellofemoral pain syndrome by dramatically increasing their activity level and putting excess pressure on the knee.
  • Changes in footwear — a person can develop patellofemoral pain syndrome by wearing the incorrect footwear during sports.

Risk factors for patellofemoral pain syndrome

Risk factors for patellofemoral pain syndrome include:

  • Gender — women are more likely to develop patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Age — young adults are more likely to develop patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Athletes — people who participate in sports are at higher risk to develop patellofemoral pain syndrome.
  • Careers — people who choose careers involving manual labor are at a higher risk of developing patellofemoral pain syndrome.

Symptoms of patellofemoral pain syndrome

The most common symptoms of patellofemoral pain syndrome are knee pain and knee stiffness that make it difficult to perform everyday activities.

Other symptoms of patellofemoral pain syndrome include:

  • Pain from sitting for a long period of time with knees bent
  • Pain when walking up or down stairs — typically walking down stairs is more painful
  • Pain from dramatic increase in activity level, such as dramatic increase in number of miles completed by a runner
  • Crackling, grinding or popping sounds in the knee after sitting for long periods of time or physical activity
  • Knee buckling under the weight of a person’s body

Diagnosis of patellofemoral pain syndrome

Patellofemoral pain syndrome is diagnosed in a physical exam with your primary care physician or orthopedic doctor. Your provider will take a full medical history and ask what activities cause the most pain. The physician may order an x-ray or MRI to determine if more serious knee conditions are causing the pain.

Treatment for patellofemoral pain syndrome

Many patients can self-treat patellofemoral pain syndrome with rest, changes in the activities that cause symptoms and anti-inflammatory medications.

During the recovery process, patients can change activities from high-impact activities, such as long-distance running, to low-impact activities, such as swimming and biking.

Also, for patients who are overweight, a physician may recommend losing weight to reduce the pressure on the knee. More advanced treatments for patellofemoral pain syndrome include:

  • Brace — bracing the kneecap can help stabilize the joint and relieve pressure.
  • Physical therapy & rehabilitation — your physician may recommend specific exercises to help you strengthen the knee as well as improve range of motion and endurance.
  • Patellofemoral release surgery — a surgical procedure on the knee that is used to realign the kneecap.
  • Steroid injection — your provider may prescribe a cortisone injection to provide short-term relief from the pain associated with the condition.

Recovery from patellofemoral pain syndrome

Most people will fully recover from patellofemoral pain syndrome after treatment. It is important to allow the injury to heal fully before returning to the normal level of activity.

During the recovery process, it is important to avoid the causes of the condition such as sitting too long, dramatically increasing activity levels too quickly and wearing improper footwear.

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