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Why Knee Pain Gets Worse When You Exercise & How To Ease It

LACEY (WA) – Since starting this series on knee pain, I have been getting a lot of questions and I would like to help clarify one common problem we see in patients that see us for knee pain. The question that was emailed to me was also by a “confused” reader of one of my newspaper articles.

This question is from Michelle, age 47. “Hey Jennifer, I’ve been suffering with knee pain in my right knee for a few weeks now. What I can’t put my finger on is what I did to make it start in the first place. Even more confusing is that it’s most painful when walking down the stairs, and it only comes on 10 minutes into a run. Sometimes it aches, sometimes it feels tender and dull, but I don’t understand why I could run fine before and now I can’t without having to stop after 10 minutes. Can you help?”

There’s a good chance that what’s happening to Michelle is the same thing that’s happening to most people this time of year. This early in the year it’s not uncommon for patients to get tired of being cooped up in their homes due to the cold weather and “overdoing” a certain outdoor activity on the rare sunny day or trying a new workout routine at the gym that causes a knee pain flare-up. Even if people are usually very active during spring or summer seasons, winter can cause us to be a little more sedentary than usual leading to some increased pain when we try to get back into an active lifestyle.

What’s likely going on with Michelle is something called “runner’s knee.” It gets this nickname for an obvious and very unfortunate reason because it’s common among runners– especially among those who are brand new to running. If we run often, after a while the stress of running can cause irritation around the knee area. The resulting pain can be sharp and sudden or irritating and dull. Sometimes it disappears when you’re running, only to return again afterwards.

The pain will generally feel worse when bending the knee, especially when walking or running downhill, or even something as simple as walking down a flight of stairs. So why is Michelle feeling pain in her knees? Think of it like this, each time you run and bend your knee, your knee cap rubs against your thigh muscle. This is like if you were to rub your hand against your arm; eventually your arm would go red and become sore after a while. Well, the same happens with your knees! Even if you’re not used to running OR haven’t slowly built up your running regimen, this is going to be a shock to your knees. Another thing, if the muscles around your knees are weak and tight, they’re not going to be able to support you through a run. Without strong muscles to support your knee joint or just really tired and weak muscles, you’re much more likely to suffer from aches and pains.

So, what’s the solution to Michelle’s problem?

It’s likely to be a simple case of strengthening the knee, hip, and lower back muscles in order to

support Michelle when she runs. However, it’s important to note that MORE exercising is not the solution. A lot of people think that exercising more is good for them (and it is to an extent) but only if you’re doing the right type of exercises to benefit everything else you’re doing. Doing the correct type of exercises and stretches to strengthen the right muscles will mean your knees will be strong enough to walk and run for longer with less pain at the end of the day. You’ve got to build a strong foundation first before doing more in order to prevent any aches and pains from suddenly creeping up on you. Such aches and pains could put you out for a few weeks!

That’s it from me, I hope you have a great week and we’ll continue talking about knee pain next week!

The author, Jennifer Penrose, is a Physical Therapist and owner of Penrose Physical Therapy. If you have any questions about knee pain you can call (360) 456-1444 or email at


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Jennifer Penrose

Penrose Physical Therapy

"Leading Experts Helping People Become More Active and Mobile, Reduce Stress and Achieve Longevity… So They Can Enjoy Great Health For Years to Come!"

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