What Causes Knee Pain & How to Relieve It


It’s kind of crazy to think about how little we learned about our bodies in school. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes, sure. We know where they are; we can point to them. But what about how they work, how to keep them healthy, what causes pain and what we should do when we feel it? Shouldn’t we have gotten some sort of Body Manual when we were young to teach us how to keep our bodies working properly?

We think so. That’s why we’re working with our team of wellness guides to fill in the gaps. To start, we’re getting to know our knees with help from our resident physical therapist, Jenna Ellis.

What are our knees and why are they so important?

Our knees are the joints between our upper and lower legs –  they connect our thigh bones to our shin bones. Knees bend and straighten with a little bit of rotation and that makes them key for our everyday movements. For example, they help hold us up as we stand, they straighten and bend as we walk, they allow us to squat and lunge to pick things up from the floor, and the little twist they do enables us to turn around quickly when we want to face another direction.

What causes knee pain?

Like any other body part, the knee can get hurt in many different ways. Usually, knee injuries are linked to one of these two things though:

  1. The kneecap is out of place due to muscle tightness.
    If the muscles around the knee get tight they can pull the patella, also known as the kneecap, out of place. When the kneecap isn’t in the right position, it will cause pain when we squat, walk or sit in a chair. 

    The muscles around our knees tend to get tight when we sit a lot, whether it’s at a desk, on the couch, or both. It’s important to keep these muscles stretched so that the kneecap can move properly as we go along our day.

  2. The knee is caving in due to a weak muscle or joint.
    Sometimes knee injuries stem from one of the joints or muscles above or below the knee. Take, for example, your butt muscles, also known as gluteal muscles or glutes. One of the gluteal muscles on the outside of your hip helps hold your hips level. If your gluteal muscle is weak on one side, your hip will drop down when you stand on that leg. This drop travels down your leg making your knee cave in, which causes bad alignment and pain.

    This can travel even further down the leg, beyond the knee, causing the ankle and foot to cave in at your arch. All of this leads to poor walking mechanics, which can over time create a tendonitis or bursitis injury at any point along the leg. The increased wear and tear it puts on your joints can also lead to arthritis.

There are specific conditions that can lead to knee injuries, like arthritis, nerve issues, and bony defects. But even in those cases, weakness, tightness, or both come into play. Sometimes it’s a root cause, like a weak muscle leading to arthritis as described above. Other times, it’s the reverse;  if you have arthritis you may end up with weak quad muscles because you’re not using them much. Likewise, a nerve injury can cause weak muscles. Or, if you have a bony defect, that could make you do a movement a little differently and that could throw off your muscles, resulting in tightness or pain.  

More often than not, knee pain is tied to both weakness and tightness, not one or the other. A tight muscle won’t be able to go through its full range of motion and will end up weakened as a result. Weak muscles become tight when they’re not being used. 

How can we recover from knee pain and prevent future injuries?

Because tightness and weakness tend to go hand-in-hand, you want to make sure to address both when dealing with knee pain. Ultimately, that means you need to stretch and strengthen your muscles. One without the other can lead to an injury or breakdown.

Here are three things Jenna recommends we do when faced with knee pain:

1. Stretch Your Quads
Your quads – aka Quadriceps femoris– are a group of four muscles in the front of your thigh. When your quads are tight they pull the knee cap upwards causing it to track awkwardly in its groove. Stretching your quads will help put it back in place.

quad stretch with primal 7 for knee pain relief

How to stretch your quads with a Primal 7 system:
Place a chair in front of you for balance. Raise the band in between knee and hip height to start. (After you do one stretch, you may opt to bring the band up higher for a bigger stretch.) Face away from the anchors and place your foot in the band, hands resting on the chair. Tighten your abdominals and squeeze your butt. With your right knee bent, raise your right arm straight up and hold it for ten seconds. Be sure to keep your knees even – don’t let one move too far forward or back. You should feel the stretch on the front of your thigh. Repeat, bending your left leg and lifting your left arm. You should do three sets with each side. Eventually, work your way up to thirty-second holds.

If you don’t have a Primal 7 system, try this instead:
Stand next to a chair or countertop for support. Bend your right knee and grab your foot with the right hand. Standing upright, keep your abdominals tight and squeeze your butt. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 3 times with each leg. After you’ve done this for a few days, gradually increase the time you hold for. Going at a pace you feel comfortable with, you want to work your way up to a thirty-second hold.

2. Strengthen Your Glutes
Your glutes are a team of three muscles; the gluteus minimus, medius, and maximus, aka your butt muscles. People with knee pain typically have weak gluteus medius and maximus. As described earlier, if your glutes aren’t strong enough to hold up your pelvis, the pelvis drops, creates extra pressure, and ultimately causes the knee to cave inwards, like knock-knees. 


How to strengthen your glutes with a Primal 7 system:
Facing away from the anchors, walk out until the band is taut, and position the band around the bottom of the chest. Lean forward a bit, coming into your Primal 7. Keep your abs tight and butt squeezed. Place your left foot under your hips, then lift your right foot up about an inch above the ground. Hold for ten seconds, then rest with both legs together and switch sides. To keep your balance during these single-leg march holds, focus on a stationary object about ten feet in front of you. For best results, do this every day, gradually working your way up to thirty-second holds.

If you don’t have a Primal 7 system, try this instead:
Keep your standing leg straight and engaged, engage your glutes, and raise the other leg into marching position. Make sure you’re squeezing your glutes to keep your butt tight. Keep your hips squared to maintain level pelvic height. Hold this single leg march position for ten seconds, lower your leg, and repeat with the other side. You want to do this three times with each leg. After you get comfortable doing this, gradually work towards holding for thirty seconds on each side.

3. Stretch Your Hamstring
Your hamstring is “the group of three muscles that run along the back of your leg, from your hip to just below your knee”*.  It’s important to stretch this group of muscles because if they are tight, they can get in the way of your knee locking properly when you stand up straight. That in turn puts extra strain on the whole lower leg and can mess up your gait. (If you see someone with a pirate limp, chances are they’ve got a tight hamstring.)

hamstring stretch with Primal 7

How to stretch your hamstring with a Primal 7 system
Stand under the anchors and behind the band. Place your right heel in the middle of the band and lightly grab the straps. Press your right leg out, straightening the knee until you feel a gentle pull in the back of your thigh. Make sure you are standing upright and not hinging forward at your hips. Keep your hips square and chest upright. Hold this position for ten seconds then switch legs. Do three ten-second sets for each leg. Eventually, you want to work your way up to thirty-second holds, but it is best to start slow and really learn how this stretch feels.

If you don’t have a Primal 7 system, try this instead:
Grab a belt before getting started. Then lay down on the floor, flat on your back with your legs straight out. Make a loop with the belt and place it around your right foot. Keeping your knee straight, pull the belt up until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold for ten seconds and repeat three times on each leg. Eventually, you want to work your way up to a thirty-second hold, but it is best to start slow and learn how this stretch feels.

Looking for more support in keeping your knees happy and pain-free? Our Knee Pain Relief Program launches the first week of June. It’s a free four-week video series guided by Jenna Ellis, designed to help you strengthen and stretch for healthy knees and improved mobility. Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when it launches.

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