What Is ‘Jumper’s Knee’ Exactly? Physical Therapists’ Tips and Exercises for Treating It
Find out what causes jumper’s knee and get tips to prevent and treat it, including at-home exercises recommended by our physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Cody Anderson, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Ever feel tenderness in the front of your knee? Or poke just below the kneecap and feel a sharp pain? Maybe you’ve assumed it’s bursitis or a meniscus tear, or maybe osteoarthritis. But it could be something else: jumper’s knee.
Jumper’s knee, or patellar tendinitis, is an injury to the patellar tendon, a fibrous cord that connects the bottom of your kneecap to your shin bone. When you put a lot of force through the patellar tendon (by, for example, repeated jumping), it can contribute to inflammation in the front of the knee. While that may sound bad, it’s something that your body is fully able to heal on its own. If your patellar tendon gets stretched or hurt, you can actually make it stronger and more resilient for the future, and it usually only takes a few weeks to get there.
What Causes Jumper's Knee?
The patellar tendon works with the thigh muscles to straighten your leg. Simply overloading the patellar tendon by doing more activity than normal can cause some pain, says Cody Anderson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Often, weekend warriors are affected by jumper’s knee. For instance, if you normally play soccer once a week, but participate in a tournament and play six games over the weekend, you might hurt after that.“
Certain activities tend to put a high load on the patellar tendon. A top cause is — you guessed it — jumping. “Jumping creates a large load because you have to propel yourself up, plus slow yourself down when you land,” explains Dr. Anderson. Other activities that are common contributors include sports like volleyball, track, and field (long jump or high jump), basketball, skiing, and weight lifting.
But that Doesn’t Mean You Should Avoid Those Activities
It’s normal for a sudden increase in a high-stress activity to bring on the pain if you haven’t done it in a long time.
Same with running. A sudden change in speed, frequency, or intensity of running can put some additional stress on the patellar tendon, which is why many runners develop jumper’s knee (not to be confused with runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome).
Here’s the thing: Even if a new activity, or a change in activity intensity, brings on knee pain, it doesn’t mean you should avoid that activity or that your body can’t handle it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Your body is remarkably strong and adaptable. Incorporating strengthening and stretching exercises in addition to the activities you enjoy better prepares your body to handle a variety of loads and prevent pain from rearing its head in the future.
How to Treat Jumper's Knee
The following interventions can be used to treat pain related to jumper’s knee:
Scale back for a short time. It’s okay to scale back on activity until the worst of your pain has passed, but it’s important to keep moving to help your body heal. You want to get back to your normal activities as soon as possible. If your pain came on after an active weekend, for example, take it easy for a couple of days and focus on gentle movement like walking and stretching to let the pain and inflammation subside, says Dr. Anderson. If returning to your regular activities (e.g., running or jumping) causes your pain to flare back up, your healthcare provider may recommend activity modifications such as cycling or swimming while you take steps to build strength in the tendon.
Compression. As you ease into activity, orthotic taping or a patellar tendon strap can help reduce strain across the tendon by altering the angle between the kneecap and the patellar tendon.
Cold therapy. Applying ice packs to the patellar tendon for up to 10 minutes after exercise can reduce inflammation.
Avoid cortisone shots. Corticosteroid injections have been linked to increased risk of tendon weakness and rupture, and are generally not recommended.
Strengthen the patellar tendon. Once the initial pain and swelling has subsided, you can start gradually adding load to the tendon to strengthen and heal it. “You have to stress the tendon so your body knows that the patellar tendon still needs to be strong,” says Dr. Anderson.
When it comes to strengthening an injured tendon, people may be surprised by how much they can strengthen it in the presence of pain, says Dr. Anderson. One approach is to use a heavier load and do fewer repetitions during strengthening exercises, says Dr. Anderson. “The key is using controlled movements so you feel confident doing the exercises.” This can take some trial and error, which is why it helps to work with a physical therapist (more information below).
Work with a physical therapist. A physical therapist will design an exercise routine to strengthen and restore the range of motion that is individualized to your body and pain level. You can expect your physical therapy routine to have moves that load the patellar tendon, such as squats, lunges, leg extensions, and bridges.
Working with a professional can also give you the confidence to find your movement “sweet spot,” where you’re challenging your knee enough to heal without aggravating it. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
When to See a Doctor
Most cases of jumper’s knee can be treated without needing to see a doctor or get imaging done, though it can take some time. “Tendons don’t get great blood flow, so although they can heal, it can take a few weeks to get there,” says Dr. Anderson.
You should gradually see a decrease in pain and an increase in your ability to do your daily activities over time. But if you don’t see improvements from the treatments above in four to six weeks, see a doctor to rule out other issues. Jumper’s knee is sometimes mistaken for other injuries such as meniscal injuries, patellofemoral syndrome, quadriceps injury, and knee bursitis, among other issues. Your doctor can do a physical exam and may order imaging (such as an ultrasound or an MRI) to get more information about what’s going on under the surface.
If your pain is severe and prevents you from performing day-to-day tasks, see a doctor as soon as possible.
How to Prevent Jumper’s Knee
Although you can experience jumper’s knee from regular, everyday activities, there are steps you can take to prevent it from occurring altogether, such as:
Warm-up. Walk for five to 10 minutes or do dynamic stretches to prepare your body for a more vigorous workout.
Strengthen and stretch the thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings). Tight and weak thigh muscles are associated with a higher incidence of patellar overuse injuries. The quadriceps also connect to the patellar tendon. “So anything that strengthens the quads also strengthens the patellar tendon,” says Dr. Anderson. (See exercises below to get started.)
Listen to your body. Pain is tricky because it’s not always an accurate indication of damage. Sometimes, we feel pain when there’s no damage present. Other times, pain is a signal that your body might experience an injury soon. You don’t need to drop everything and stop moving at the first sign of a twinge in your knee, but putting heavy loads on an already inflamed tendon may make for a longer recovery. If you notice knee discomfort, it’s okay to scale back to gentle movement to prevent the pain from getting worse.
Don’t increase exercise too fast. If you run 20 miles in one week, for example, and want to increase how far you run, aim to run just a few miles more the following week, and maybe think about adjusting your pace to be easier on some runs. Or if you usually play one soccer game a weekend, and you have three coming up, find ways to adjust by substituting out more often or playing at a more moderate intensity for some of the game.
Exercises for Jumper’s Knee
One of the best tools to prevent and rehabilitate jumper’s knee is exercise therapy. The following exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists gradually increase the amount of pressure on the patellar tendon to strengthen it. Focus on doing each move in a controlled manner, suggests Dr. Anderson. Start by doing them every other day, maybe at lower repetitions, to allow for some recovery time. Then you can build up to doing them most days of the week at higher rep counts.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
PT Tip: Think of Sitting as Squatting
“Oftentimes, people are afraid to squat when they have knee pain,” says Dr. Anderson. “And to that, I say: ‘Do you sit on a couch or chair? Do you sit on a toilet?’ Every time you do those things, you're squatting!” So take advantage of those everyday movements as an opportunity to rehabilitate your knee. Every time you go to sit, be very controlled in your movement so you can keep healing.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Can you run on jumper's knee?
In some cases, running can aggravate an already-irritated patellar tendon. If that’s the case, you may need to take a break or scale back on running to let the inflammation subside. But there are plenty of alternatives that can hold you over if you really enjoy running. Your medical provider may recommend a lower-impact form of aerobic exercise (like a stationary bike or swimming) while you strengthen the tendon and thigh muscles to prepare it for the stress of running. Or you can try brisk walking, maybe at an incline, to see how that feels. When you do return to running, start slow and build up at a reasonable rate.
Who is most at risk of getting jumper’s knee?
Studies have found that, ironically, the athletes with the best vertical jumping ability are the most prone to patellar tendon issues. It also tends to occur in a younger population (adults ages 18 to 40). Body type may be a factor with the athletes most affected being younger, taller, and having a higher body weight. Other risk factors include having tight or weak thigh muscles (quads and hamstrings), having low arches, and having a waist larger than 83 cm (32.7 inches). Regardless of what your risk factors are, though, strengthening the patellar tendon and taking other preventative measures can help stave off jumper’s knee and allow you to heal from knee injuries faster.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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