Runner's Knee vs. Osteoarthritis

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on March 24, 2023
3 min read

Does your knee hurt when you get up from a chair? Is there a dull ache when you're walking? Lots of things can cause that. But two common causes of knee pain are patellofemoral syndrome, also known as runner's knee, and osteoarthritis.

Patellofemoral syndrome is the term for pain at the front of your kneecap. It's common in people who play sports. That's why it's often called "runner's knee" or "jumper's knee."

It can be brought on by using your knees too much, for instance with intense exercise like jogging, squatting, or climbing stairs. But it can happen to people who don't play sports, too. Your kneecap, also called patella, can get out of line and not move the way it should in the groove on top of your thighbone.

This wears away the cartilage -- a slippery substance that helps your bones move smoothly against each other -- and causes pain.

You may feel a dull ache in the front of your knee, and it may hurt to climb stairs, jump, or squat. You may notice that your knee hurts after you sit for a long time. Or it might pop or crackle when you stand up or go up stairs.

Arthritis can happen in any joint in your body, but it's especially common in your knee. It can make it hard to do things like walk or climb stairs.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common kinds of arthritis. It's the "wear and tear" kind that usually affects people over 50. OA happens slowly, and it hurts more over time. The cartilage wears away in your joint, and, just like with runner's knee, bone rubs on bone and causes pain.

If you have OA, your knee may feel stiff and swollen and you may have trouble bending and straightening it. It's often worse in the morning or during rainy weather. Your knee may buckle or feel weak.

Your doctor will need to know what's causing your pain so they can treat it correctly. They'll examine you and ask about your symptoms and your medical history.

They may ask whether your pain is dull or sharp or if some things make it worse. They may gently press and pull on the front of your knees and kneecaps. They may ask you to walk, squat, jump, or lunge.

If they think you might have OA, they'll look for joint swelling, warmth or redness, tenderness, problems with the way you walk, and pain as well as other things.

They may be able to tell if you have runner's knee from a physical exam. But they'll order tests if they are not sure. These include X-rays and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make a more detailed picture.In some cases, they may ask for an ultrasound, which uses sound waves to generate a picture of the inside of your body.

Runner's knee often gets better on its own, and there's a lot you can do. For example, you might try the RICE method:

  • Rest. Don't put weight on the knee that hurts.
  • Ice. Use cold packs on your knee several times a day for 20 minutes at a time. Don't put ice directly on your skin.
  • Compression. Lightly wrap your knee in an elastic bandage, and leave a hole around the kneecap. This will help with swelling.
  • Elevation. Rest with your knee raised above your heart as often as you can.

Stay away from activities that hurt your knee. If you love exercising, try switching to biking and swimming -- they're easy on your knees.

Over-the-counter pain relievers, special shoe inserts, and exercises to strengthen the muscles in your legs also can help.

There's no cure for arthritis. You can, though, do some things to help with the pain and make getting around easier. Your doctor might suggest physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in your leg and make you more flexible. Putting heat or ice on your knee or wearing bandages to support it may also help. You can take over-the-counter pain relievers, or your doctor might prescribe stronger medications such as steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), to ease inflammation and pain.

Lifestyle changes like losing weight, climbing the stairs less, and swimming or cycling also can help your knees.

If nothing else works, your doctor may talk with you about possible steroid injections in the knee or knee surgery.