Patellofemoral Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Feb 28, 2022

If you’ve ever heard the term “jumper’s knee” or “runner’s knee,” then you have heard of patellofemoral syndrome. This condition describes pain that manifests in the front of the knee and around the kneecap. Anyone can suffer from this condition, though it is more common in athletes, and experience pain ranging from uncomfortable to excruciating. The good news is that patellofemoral syndrome is usually treated with home remedies and physical therapy services rather than invasive methods like surgery.

Anatomy of the Knee

Your knee is the largest joint in your body and one of the most complex. There are three main components of the joint: the lower end of your thighbone or femur, the upper end of the shinbone or tibia, and the patella or kneecap.

The femur is connected to the bones of the lower leg by ligaments and tendons. Four major ligaments in the knee attach to the bones, acting like ropes to hold them together. Muscles are then connected to the bones with tendons, including the quadriceps tendon, which connects the muscles in the thigh to the patella and helps to stabilize the tibia and patella.

Movement in the knee is facilitated by several structures in the knee. For example, the kneecap rests on a groove in the femur known as the trochlea. It moves back and forth inside this grove when you bend and straighten your knee. It is able to glide smoothly because of a slippery substance, articular cartilage, as well as a thin lining of tissue covering the surface of the joint.

All of these structures work together to facilitate smooth movement of the knee. When any one of them is impacted, it can cause pain and other symptoms, such as patellofemoral syndrome.

Causes of Patellofemoral Syndrome

Patellofemoral syndrome has two primary causes: overuse injuries and misalignment of the kneecap.


Vigorous physical activity that puts stress on the knee over time, like jogging or climbing stairs, is a very common cause of patellofemoral syndrome. This is why athletes are the demographic most likely to suffer from the condition, which may appear to show up out of nowhere after prolonged activity. Improper form or technique during exercise can also contribute.

A sudden change in physical activity can also trigger the onset of pain, whether it is the introduction of new activities or a sharp increase in duration and intensity. Changes in footwear and playing surface can also be a catalyst.

Patellar Misalignment

When the kneecap is tracking abnormally in the trochlea, it can also lead to patellofemoral syndrome. When this happens, the patella is pushed to one side of the groove when the knee is bent, causing increased pressure between the back of the patella and the trochlea, irritating the nearby soft tissue.

This poor tracking can be a result of alignment issues between the hips or the ankles, which force the kneecaps to shift too far toward the inside or outside of the leg or to ride too high in the trochlear groove. Muscular imbalances or weaknesses, particularly in the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh, can also contribute.

Symptoms of Patellofemoral Syndrome

The most commonly cited symptom of this condition is a dull, aching pain felt in the front of the knee. The pain usually begins gradually and may be related to an activity, and it may be present in one or both knees.

Other common symptoms can include:

  • Pain during exercise and activities which repeatedly bend the knee, like climbing stairs, running, jumping, or squatting
  • Pain at the front of the knee after sitting for a long period of time with knees bent, like on an airplane or in a movie theater
  • Pain-related to a change in activity level, intensity, surface, or equipment
  • Popping and crackling sounds in the knee during movements like climbing stairs or standing up from a long period of sitting

Home Remedies for Patellofemoral Syndrome

In many cases, simple and conservative home treatments will be enough to relieve patellofemoral pain. This should begin with ceasing any activities that make your knee hurt until the pain is gone. Changing a training routine or switching to low-impact activities may be necessary, even if you do not stop working out entirely.

You can also follow the RICE method:

  • Rest: avoid putting weight on the knee(s)
  • Ice: use cold packs for 20 minutes at a time throughout the day
  • Compress: lightly wrap the knee, leaving the kneecap exposed
  • Elevate: rest with the knee above the heart

If necessary, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to reduce swelling and help with pain management.

If pain worsens or movement becomes difficult, contact a doctor.

Treatment for Patellofemoral Syndrome

Medical treatments for this condition focus on relieving pain and restoring range of motion and strength to the knee. Non-surgical options will be explored first, with surgery only becoming necessary in severe cases that do not respond to more conservative methods of treatment.

In addition to home remedies, a doctor will likely recommend a course of physical therapy to achieve these goals. By strengthening the muscles that stabilize the knee, you will not only address current symptoms but prevent them from occurring again in the future. This may be paired with orthotics to align and stabilize the foot or ankle and reduce stress in the lower legs.

When symptoms are not managed, surgery may become an option. Possible surgical methods include removing the damaged cartilage, loosening tendons, or realigning the kneecap. In some cases, a complete joint replacement of the kneecap can be performed.

At AICA Jonesboro, our team of doctors and other professionals will work to diagnose the cause of your pain and create a personalized care plan to help you return to your daily activities. By bringing together orthopedic doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and others, we are able to holistically examine each patient and create a recovery path that is unique to them. If you are suffering from knee pain, contact AICA Jonesboro today to begin finding relief.


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