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How to Know When Your Runner’s Knee Is a Pain to Worry About

Yeah, if it’s ‘buckling’ or ‘giving out,’ that’s no good

Ever since I turned 30 a couple of years ago, I’ve come to except various aches and pains as normal. Such is the case with my daily runs. After a dull ache in my knees didn’t simply go away like it used to, I assumed I was just getting older.

At the same time, am I really supposed to accept hobbling around with post-run knee pain for the rest of my life? And at what point does it require medical attention? 

Alti Iftikhar, a physician in Florida who specializes in sports medicine, gets the second question a lot. To start, he says, there are a few shades of knee pain for which you should call your doctor right away. “I usually ask my patients if they feel as if their knees ‘give out’ on them or ‘buckle,’” he explains. “Basically, if there’s any instability felt in the knee, or if for some reason you’re not able to bear weight on the knee that’s injured, you should seek medical attention, as this could mean that there’s structural damage to a ligament or the meniscus.” 

Now, if you’ve got achy runner’s knees like mine, it’s not an emergency, but you’re not out of the woods either. Iftikhar recommends anyone who experiences soreness in the aftermath of exercising to skip the hot shower, apply ice to the pain, chomp some Tylenol, and most importantly, take a few days off. 

“If the soreness you felt goes away on its own, it likely isn’t a big deal,” Iftikhar explains. Such soreness was likely caused by mechanics rather than structure, like a small slip or turned ankle. Rest and preventing inflammation goes a long way toward helping your knee joints heal properly. That said, if the pain returns during or after your next run, “look to try a few simple fixes such as getting inserts or running shoes that better match your anatomy and stride.” 

So far in my running life, I’ve been lucky enough to solve my bouts of post-run knee pain with new shoes. As annoying and expensive as that can be, it’s not as annoying and expensive as needing knee surgery. Plus, there are plenty of ways to recycle your old running shoes

If inserts or new shoes don’t work, Iftikhar also recommends getting “your gait analyzed by a physical therapist to make sure your mechanics are proper.” This is obviously more difficult than buying new shoes, but again, anything is better than surgery. 

Speaking of which, if the dull pain sticks around despite new equipment and plenty of ice and rest, medical attention still might be on the horizon. “If after a few days there is no improvement, worsening of the symptoms or noticeable swelling that doesn’t improve with the conservative treatments mentioned,” Iftikhar says. “It’s time to get evaluated by a physician.”

So unless it’s temporary, no amount of knee pain is acceptable — even if, like me, you’re at the ripe old age of 32.