Knee Problems When Walking Uphill

Walking makes you feel great. It boosts your energy, lifts your mood and revs up your metabolism. However, trekking up hills may leave you ready to park your walking shoes once knee problems set in. The pain that results from walking uphill is usually caused by one of two common knee syndromes. Both are challenging but treatable.

Man and woman hiking through desert
Man and woman walking up a sand dune (Image: Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

One of the most common knee problems is patellofemoral pain syndrome, and you'll feel this acutely when you're walking uphill. It's considered an overuse ailment, the result of the patella, or knee cap, not tracking properly along the groove in the femur, the bone in the thigh. The femur sometimes bumps repeatedly into the underside of the knee cap. The pain around and under the knee cap is intense uphill because of the pressure you place on the joint.

Treatment for Patellofemoral Pain

Treating patellofemoral pain requires a visit to your doctor. He'll want you to rest your knee, ice it for 20 minutes at a time and possibly take anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen. When the pain subsides, you'll have to work with a physical therapist to strengthen the quadriceps, the four muscles in your thigh which help to stabilize the knee cap. You should be able to return to a walking routine after six weeks of rehab. A small percentage of patients do not respond to therapy and may need to have a surgeon resurface the underside of the knee cap.

Iliotibial Band Syndrome

Another common knee problem when walking uphill is iliotibial band syndrome. The iliotibial band starts at your hip, travels down your leg and crosses your knee cap. It is made of thick fibrous tissue. The constant flexing of the knee joint from walking, especially uphill, can irritate the iliotbial band. That inflammation causes knee swelling and lateral pain across the knee cap that you feel more intensely when going uphill. The pain is often so bad that you'll have to stop exercising completely.

Treatment for the Iliotibial Band

Treating iliotibial band sydrome is challenging. Your doctor will order you to stop all flexing of the knee to give it a chance to rest. You'll have to ice it for 20 minutes at a time, possibly take anti-inflammatories and even get a cortisone shot if the swelling doesn't go down. Once the pain and swelling subside, you'll have to work with a physical trainer to stretch the iliotibial band and strengthen the muscle that supports it, the gluteus medius. Sometimes therapy fails, however. In those cases, patients may need surgery to snip the iliotibial band where it crosses the knee.

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