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Patella Femoral Syndrome: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Kirstyn Wade

Kirstyn is a registered nurse and has a master's degree in Nursing Education. She has taught college Nursing courses.

Patella femoral syndrome, or patellofemoral pain syndrome, is a disorder that affects the front of the knee. While this is not a life-threatening condition, it can be quite painful. In this lesson you will learn more about the symptoms and treatment of this disorder.

Knee Pain

Erin, a 20-year-old college student, has been training for an upcoming half marathon. She is in good health, and has no major medical conditions. However, she has been having increased discomfort in her left knee, particularly after her running workouts. She tries running less frequently, but it doesn't seem to be getting better, so she goes to see a sports medicine doctor for advice.

Patella Femoral Syndrome?

After a thorough exam, Erin's doctor diagnoses her with patella femoral syndrome, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome. This condition causes pain at the front of the knee and around the patella, or kneecap, due to the underside of the patella coming into contact with the femur, or thighbone.

The knee joint is made up of bone, ligaments, muscles, and cartilage. The cartilage in the knee helps the bones of the femur, patella, and tibia (shinbone) glide smoothly over one another. There is also synovial fluid that helps lubricate the cartilage, allowing it to better aid in movement, and a fat pad underneath the patella that acts as a shock absorber when doing physical activity.

Diagram of the Knee
Knee Diagram

Patella femoral syndrome occurs when there is abnormal friction, damage or misalignment to any of these tissues. This condition differs from chondromalacia of the patella because there is no actual breakdown of the cartilage of the knee.

What Causes Patella Femoral Syndrome?

There can be several causes of patella femoral syndrome. These include:

  • Overuse from increased physical activities, such as running, jumping, squatting or climbing stairs
  • Misalignment of the patella: the patella is pushed to the inside or outside of the normal tracking pattern when the knee bends
  • Quadriceps muscle imbalance: muscles of the thigh may be weak or imbalanced, affecting the knee joints

Running can put increased stress on the knee joints
Runner

Erin's doctor believes her injury stems from overuse of the knee. Since she has been training for a half marathon, she has been running a lot more and putting more stress on her knees.

What Are the Symptoms of Patella Femoral Syndrome?

Erin's biggest complaint is pain in the front of her knee. Other symptoms of patella femoral syndrome include:

  • Pain during physical activity or exercise, particularly when bending the knee
  • Pain after sitting with bent knees for a prolonged period of time
  • Joint noises, such as popping or cracking, when moving the knees
  • Swelling around the knee
  • A feeling of weakness in the legs or knees

Knee Pain
Knee Pain

How is Patella Femoral Syndrome Treated?

Erin's doctor advises conservative therapies as the first line of treatment for her condition. Many doctors will suggest starting with resting of the knee and RICE therapy. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Erin's doctor gives her instructions to stop any physical activities that cause pain to her knee, including running. He also suggests she apply ice to her knee for 20 minutes a couple of times per day, wrapping her knee with an ACE wrap, or elastic bandage, and elevating her knee above the level of her heart to help with discomfort and swelling. Doctors may also recommend using anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or Aleve.

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