Tendons are strong bands of fibrous tissue that connect your muscles to your bones. Your “patellar tendon” connects your kneecap (patella) to your shin bone (tibia). “Patellar tendonopathy” results from repetitive straining and micro-tearing of this connection, resulting in pain and inflammation. The condition is referred to as “jumper’s knee,” since damage is thought to often result from repetitive jumping.
The condition should probably be called “landing knee,” since forces on the patellar tendon are twice as great during landing as compared to those created during take off.
Patellar tendinopathy is common, affecting almost 20% of all athletes with a rate as high as 50% in sports that require repetitive forceful jumping, like basketball and volleyball. The condition may affect one or both knees and may be slightly more common in males.
Weakness in the quadriceps muscle of your thigh can allow excessive bending of your knee when you land following a jump. This places your patellar tendon at a greater risk for injury. Having strong quadriceps muscles protects your knee from excessive flexion and injury.
Symptoms of patellar tendinopathy include pain or swelling just below your kneecap. This may begin without an identifiable injury and may come and go for months or years. Symptoms are usually aggravated by activity, but most athletes have been able to continue playing through the pain. Pain often increases during activities that require strong quadriceps contraction, like jumping, squatting, arising from a seated position, stair climbing, or running. Walking down stairs or running down hill seems to be more bothersome than going up.
Some athletes may have unconsciously learned to protect their knee by developing unnatural jumping mechanics. This could include landing with a more rigid knee, or allowing too much hip flexion. You may need to become more conscious of landing with the right amount of knee flexion with your foot in a neutral position and avoiding excessive hip flexion. Your doctor would be able to answer any questions you have about good jumping mechanics.
Patellar tendon straps, like a Cho-pat, can help reduce stress on your patellar tendon and relieve pain. Three fourths of the people who use patellar tendon straps for patellar tendinitis report improvement.
Patellar tendinopathy is treatable. Patients who follow a well-planned strengthening program show similar outcomes to those who have undergone surgery for the problem. Initially, you may need to decrease your training intensity to help protect your knee. You should stay away from activities that produce more than mild pain. You should avoid complete rest, as this could actually increase your risk of recurrence. Using ice packs or ice massage for 10-15 minutes at a time, especially following activity, may help to reduce inflammation.