Written by Nic Bartolotta
Benefits of foam rolling for knee pain
- Reducing muscle tension & tightness: Releases tension & tightness in the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. This reduces the pressure on the knee and increases the joint's range of motion (ROM).
- Improving circulation: Improves blood flow to the muscles and tissues around the knee joint, promoting healing and reducing pain.
Enhancing recovery: Stimulates recovery after exercise or physical activity, reducing muscle soreness and the future risk of injury.
Increasing range of motion: Increases both active & passive knee mobility by breaking down scar tissue and reducing surrounding muscle tension. A 2020 study suggests that it can improve passive knee ROM by up to 8 degrees.
But before you grab your foam roller or muscle roller stick, it’s important to understand what’s causing your knee pain.
What causes knee pain?
The most common causes of knee pain are diseases, acute injuries, overuse, and general muscular issues. Each causes a different type of pain and thus requires a different course of treatment. Let’s explore each of these types a bit further.
Diseases & Conditions
Osteoarthritis: A degenerative joint disease that wears down the cartilage in the knee joint, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints, including the knee, damaging the cartilage and surrounding tissues. As the inflammation builds up, patients experience extreme chronic pain and stiffness which worsens with exercise.
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS): A physiological condition that’s characterized by the kneecap (patella) not moving properly over the thigh bone (femur). It causes knee pain & stiffness even during basic activities like climbing stairs, squatting, or sitting for long periods.
When used properly, foam rolling can be an effective tool to manage knee pain caused by both types of arthritis as well as PFPS.
Knee injuries are one of the most common injuries in sports, right up there with shoulder and ankle injuries. It’s not uncommon for a previous injury to cause lingering knee pain. Individuals who run, jump, and change directions constantly are particularly at risk for the following:
Meniscus tears: The meniscus helps cushion and stabilize the knee joint. Even a partial tear can lead to chronic pain and swelling, especially if left untreated.
- Ligament injuries: There are four major ligaments in the knee: the ACL, PCL, MCL and LCL. Tearing any one of these ligaments will sideline you for weeks and cause instability in the knee joint until rehabilitated or repaired.
Though a foam rolling won’t be able to repair a torn meniscus or ACL, it will help promote blood & nutrient circulation to the injured area, reducing inflammation and accelerating the overall healing process.
Inflammation is generally the result of injuries or overtraining, and sometimes a combination of the two. And if left untreated, inflammation in and around the knee will
Bursitis: Inflammation of the small fluid-filled sacs (bursae) that cushion the knee joint. Inflamed bursae cause acute pain & stiffness during practically every movement involving the knees, including walking, taking the stairs, and even sitting down.
- Tendonitis: Knee tendonitis is one of the most common conditions in physically active individuals, where the tendons that attach muscles to bone become inflamed as a result of overuse or lack of muscle. This is why knee sleeves have become common in almost every kind of gym these days. In the knee, specifically, it can occur in both the patellar tendon or the hamstring tendons, causing chronic pain and stiffness.
Both bursitis and tendonitis are caused by overuse. Muscles attach to tendons and generate the force required for movement. When a muscle becomes tight or weak, it increases strain on the tendon. This added stress results in acute inflammation and tears. Foam rolling helps improve tendonitis by alleviating this muscle tension. It also has pre-habilitative uses, preventing tendonitis before it occurs.
Muscular & Tissue Issues
There are three muscle groups in your leg that control your knees: quadriceps, hamstrings, and the calves. And though often mistaken for a muscle, the iliotibial (IT) band can also cause issues. The IT band is a thick band of tissue on your outer thigh, which facilitates hip movement. Knee pain can be caused by strains, tears, and imbalances in any one of these.
Foam rolling eases tension, treats soreness, and reduces associated pain caused by these muscle & tissue abnormalities.
4 foam rolling techniques to treat your knee pain
Though foam rolling helps reduce general pain and tension in these muscle groups, the biggest benefit comes from targeting trigger points. These points, commonly known as “knots,” are adhesions, where the muscular tissue binds to the myofascial tissue and restricts movement.
Let’s explore how to perform ART on each of the primary muscle and tissue groups responsible for knee pain.
Read our full guide: How to Foam Roll Your Calves.
It’s important to note that unlike the quads, hamstrings, and calves, the IT band is not a muscle. And because it’s not a muscle, it’s impossible to have a “tight” IT band. What people commonly refer to as a tight IT band is actually the result of muscle tension in your hips and outer thigh. As these muscles tense up, they squeeze the IT band, resulting in the pain. If left untreated, minor discomfort in your outer thigh will lead to iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) and knee pain.
Removing this tension is not as simple as foam rolling the IT band directly. There are two distinct areas that need to be addressed: tensor fascia latae (TFL) and lateral quad. For the full technique, check out the video below and our full guide to full guide to foam rolling your IT bands.
Foam rolling is an effective method to treat knee pain caused by injuries, overuse, and certain health conditions. So instead of taking a few ibuprofens when you wake up or before every workout, you can treat the pain at the source. Foam rolling reduce inflammation, improves range of motion, and promotes the flow of blood & important nutrients to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments around your knee.