If you see a doctor for knee pain, one of the first things they’ll ask is: “Where exactly is the pain?” It sounds obvious, but a small query goes a long way. And that’s because your knee isn’t really a single unit. It’s a collection of parts. Or in medical-speak, compartments: the medial (inner side), the patellofemoral (kneecap area) and the lateral (outer side). Pinpointing the exact location of pain gives us some big clues about the likely cause.
Let’s focus on the lateral, then. If you have pain on the outside of your knee, what might be provoking it? As with all knee issues, there are lots of possibilities. But here are four of the most common ones.
Unlike the following three culprits, this one isn’t primarily related to injury. Osteoarthritis is what happens when the smooth cartilage in the knee wears away, causing the bones in our joints to rub against each other. It’s more common as we get older, particularly from the age of 50 on. It usually creeps up gradually. And it often presents as a constant, dull ache – especially at night or after activity. If these symptoms occur on the outer side of the knee, it may be that osteoarthritis is the problem. You can find out more about the condition here.
As the word ‘tear’ suggests, this is an injury-related problem. Your menisci is made up of two cartilage pads that provide stability and shock absorption in the knee. If the tear happens on the outer pad, that’s where you’ll probably feel the pain. This pain typically feels sharp, particularly if you try to crouch or squat. You may find the knee felt OK at the time of the injury, only to then swell up and become stiff a day or two later. In more serious cases, meniscus tears can cause locking of the knee or a feeling of instability. Most meniscus tears heal naturally within a few weeks, and it helps to follow the RICE protocol (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) in the first instance. More serious cases are less likely to heal independently, however, and may need surgery to repair or replace the torn cartilage. Read more about meniscal tears here.
Ilotibial Band Syndrome
This little mouthful refers to the thick collection of fibrous tissue that runs down the outside of your leg, from hip to shin bone (tibia). Its purpose is to provide stability to that area. ITBS is what happens when these tissues become irritated and inflamed, preventing the band from moving smoothly within your leg. There are various reasons why the band can become irritated in the first place, but running is often at the root of it (ITBS is sometimes known as “runner’s knee”). ITBS pain tends to feel like a burn or ache on the outer part of the knee, especially when running up steps or a slope.
LCL stands for Lateral Collateral Ligament. This is a tough tissue that runs between your thigh bone (femur) and your shinbone (fibula). Its main function is to stop your knee from buckling or moving too far to the side. LCL tears typically happen after a blow to the inside of the knee (most commonly during a contact sport): the impact travels across the joint and strains the outer ligament until it sprains or ruptures. In serious cases, tears can cause the knee to become unstable; these kinds of tears often coincide with an ACL or PCL tear as well. Simple LCL sprains can usually be treated with the RICE steps to rest the tissues and bring down inflammation.
What can we conclude? In the short term rest is usually best, so you can see how things settle. If your symptoms persist, though, it could be time to have a proper look at what’s going on in your knee. Outer knee complaints are certainly very common at Chris Bailey Orthopaedics. You can book in quickly and easily at one of our clinics here – and we’ll help you get to the bottom of it.