An Innovative Approach to Treating Knee Pain After Running
Sometimes standard, common-sense treatments just don’t help reduce knee pain after running. These include:
- Resting or cutting back on training
- Improving biomechanics and form
- Making sure to warm-up and cool down
- Stretching or strength training
- And more
When these treatments don’t work, it can be for any number of reasons. For example, we’ve talked to plenty of runners with old injuries; or who are in the process of fixing their form; or who are getting back into running after years. Each of these athletes may experience normal aches and pains that even rest, stretching, and perfect form can’t fix.
In our experience, these athletes could benefit from an alternative, innovative therapy — one used by professional athletes in every country and every sport, and that’s been cleared by the FDA for pain management.
We’re talking about red light therapy. This therapy uses light waves to stimulate your cells and boost your body’s natural healing mechanisms at the cellular level. It’s painless, natural, safe, and can be used for runners knee and athletes at every level.
In this article:
- A brief review of common causes for knee pain after running
- An explanation of red led light therapy for pain, how it helps to relieve pain
- How to use red light therapy for knee pain as part of rest and recovery protocols
- A review of other common methods for pain management in case red light isn’t right for you
Note: Learn more about our line of red light therapy devices or purchase a panel for home use in our store.
How Does Running Cause Knee Pain?
The most common causes of running-related knee pain include:
Patellofemoral pain syndrome, more commonly known as runner’s knee, is caused by muscle imbalances and poor biomechanics. These factors cause the patella (kneecap) to track poorly, meaning it shifts out of place as you bend or straighten your leg. This results in pain around the kneecap both during and after a run.
Iliotibial Band Syndrome
Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITB) describes pain just below/outside of the knee. A tight iliotibial band (the long ligament that stretches along the outside of the thigh from the pelvis to the shin can result from overuse, repetitive motion, and muscle weakness and can cause discomfort during and after a run.
Patellar tendonitis is different from patellofemoral pain syndrome. It refers to pain just below the kneecap. It is caused by overuse and muscle imbalance. Patellar tendonitis hurts during training and also when going up or down stairs.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative disease that is often associated with overuse. It is characterized by the hyaline cartilage (lining of the knee joint) wearing out, which causes bone to grind on bone.
Knee pain treatment typically focuses on relieving pain and correcting the underlying causes of the pain, such as muscle imbalance. There are two important factors to consider, however, before you start treating runner's knee or other knee problems.
The first factor is that knee injuries are slow-healing because connective tissue, which forms strong, rope-like structures such as ligaments and tendons, heals slower than muscle. Once the damage is done, conventional treatments may not allow normal training to resume.
Another important factor to consider is that you may be suffering from more than one of these knee conditions. For example, you could have IT band problems and the beginnings of osteoarthritis due to unresolved runner’s knee.
Later in this article, we’ll discuss the most typical treatments for running-related knee pain. Red light therapy works with all of these treatments to potentially accelerate healing and help prevent future problems.
Red Light Therapy for Knee Pain
Red light’s healing potential was discovered during the late 1980s by a team of NASA scientists. They were conducting experiments to gauge the effectiveness of LED lights for growing plants in space and found that red light could stimulate the process of photosynthesis. They also made an accidental discovery: Red light could also speed up wound-healing in humans.
In the decades since that discovery red light has been widely researched, and hundreds of studies have been published. Today, red light therapy is known as an effective treatment for a wide array of health conditions, from skin disorders and wound healing to sports injuries like runner's knee.
Red light therapy, which is also called low-level light therapy (LLLT) and phototherapy, uses specific wavelengths of red and near-infrared (NIR) light to stimulate healing in the body's tissues.
As confirmed by hundreds of studies and thousands of papers, light waves between 630 and 850 nanometers (nm), which comprise the red and NIR spectrum of visible light, can penetrate the skin and interact with light-responsive molecules within the body’s cells.
When red light shines onto bare skin, particles of light (photons) come into contact with light-sensitive molecules known as chromophores. This stimulates mitochondria (energy-producing organelles) inside cells to produce more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel of human cells.
When damaged or depleted cells are irradiated, meaning exposed to red/NIR light, their mitochondria begin producing more energy. This increase in energy sparks a chain reaction of beneficial biological processes, including increased collagen production (to rebuild damaged cartilage in the knee), reduced inflammation, and increased blood flow to deliver nutrients to and remove waste from the affected area.
The Benefits of Red Light on Running-Related Injuries
Although there are thousands of studies to date on the effects of red light, only a handful address athletic injuries.
There are, however, numerous studies on red light’s effects on knee osteoarthritis. Even if you haven't been diagnosed with OA, it’s worth noting that red light works great as led therapy for pain relief, helps to ease pain, and promotes the healing of connective tissue in the knees.
In 2016, Lehigh University researchers conducted one of the most notable athlete-specific studies on LLLT. The study focused on the effects of NIR light in reducing return-to-play in injured university athletes. The study used 830nm light to treat 395 injuries, including tendonitis, ligament damage, sprains, strains, and contusions.
On average, just over four treatments were administered for each injury. Participants reported significantly reduced pain and relaxed muscle spasms and returned to play in just over nine days compared with 19.23 days for the control group.
This study is significant because it added red light to the healing mechanisms supported by the P.R.I.C.E. model.
Red Light and P.R.I.C.E.
Most athletes adhere to the traditional P.R.I.C.E. approach to healing knee injuries:
- Protect the injured area;
- Rest to protect the injured area and allow the body to divert resources to healing;
- Ice the affected area for the first 48 to 72 hours after injury to decrease swelling and control pain;
- Compress: Wrap or brace the affected area to control swelling and decrease movement;
- Elevate the injured area, ideally above the heart, to decrease swelling.
When red light is added to this protocol, several additional processes speed up healing:
- Enhanced Circulation
Encouraging lymphatic flow bathes the affected area in lymph, which removes toxins and waste, and in the process reduces swelling. Enhanced blood flow brings in white blood cells to prevent infection, as well as oxygen and nutrients. Red light therapy stimulates microcirculation in irradiated parts of the body.
- Controlled Inflammation
Acute inflammation is a normal and necessary part of the natural healing process. Swelling, redness, and tenderness are typical symptoms of acute inflammation. When inflammation becomes chronic, however, it can lead to a variety of problems.
Red light stimulates cellular functioning, which speeds up healing during the inflammatory phase. Faster healing means the inflammatory response stops more quickly (as it is no longer needed). After the inflammatory phase, ongoing red light treatments continue to promote cell health by regulating oxidative stress that can lead to chronic inflammation.
The inflammation-reducing effect of red light was the focus of a 2013 study, in which researchers studied inflammation in the synovial membranes of rat joints. The synovial membrane produces fluid that lubricates the joint to reduce friction, and inflammation disrupts the production of the fluid. After irradiation with 808nm NIR light, the rats showed less inflammation, which could potentially lead to the same result in human joints.
- Increased Collagen Production
Collagen is a protein found in skin and connective tissue, including knee cartilage; in fact, 60 percent of cartilage is made up of collagen. Cartilage provides a smooth, lubricated surface to cushion joints so they can move and support the weight of the body.
Increasing collagen synthesis and regenerating cartilage can often lead to relief from discomfort and improved mobility in the knee since the bones are once again protected by proper cushioning.
Although doctors often disagree about whether collagen can be repaired, a 2017 study showed great promise in that area. Researchers from Saudi Arabia found that red light treatments increased collagen regeneration, which led to thicker cartilage.
In a study on meniscus tears, researchers found that patients who were treated with red light experienced a significant reduction in pain.
In an aging population, osteoarthritis may be a significant contributing factor to running-related knee injuries. According to a 2018 publication by the Mayo Clinic, 14 million people in the United States suffer from knee osteoarthritis and 2 million of them are under the age of 45. Old injuries can lead to osteoarthritis, which may explain some of the knee problems that plague middle-aged runners.
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, the healing mechanisms stimulated by red light can effectively treat other types of running-related knee injuries.
OA primarily targets the knees—which take a pounding whenever you run. It can also affect the hips and spine, which alters biomechanics and causes problems like patellar tendonitis.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) offer temporary relief, but long term may cause serious side effects including ulcers, kidney damage, and increased risk of stroke and heart attack
- Surgery (knee replacement)
Numerous studies have shown that red light therapy is an effective treatment for osteoarthritis, such as these:
- A 2015 OA study showed that adding red light therapy to physical therapy successfully postponed the need for joint replacement surgery.
- A group of elderly patients with knee osteoarthritis experienced a 50% reduction in pain after ten days of treatment with red light.
- A 2016 study involved 72 patients between the ages of 39 and 83 who suffered from knee osteoarthritis. Those who received red light therapy reported significant pain reduction after seven days of treatment.
- A study by researchers from Brazil involved 47 patients with knee osteoarthritis. Of those, 25 patients received red light treatment three times a week and experienced a significant improvement in pain and joint mobility.
- A group of osteoarthritis patients receiving red light therapy along with exercise showed increased range of motion and function after three weeks of treatment.
The healing mechanisms involved in reducing osteoarthritic pain include reduced inflammation, increased microcirculation, and increased collagen synthesis—and these same mechanisms are present in healing non-arthritis-related knee pain.
How to Heal Runner’s Knee Fast using Red Light Therapy
Red light is safe, gentle, and natural, and you can use it with complete confidence. Still, before self-administering red light therapy at home, get medical advice from a doctor or physical therapist for guidance on ways to strengthen and stabilize the knees to support healing. For best results:
- Invest in a quality LED device.
Avoid cheap wands that don’t deliver the light power output (irradiance) needed for the light to absorb deep into the knee joint.
- Use a combination of red and NIR wavelengths.
The therapeutic benefits of red light are concentrated on the skin and the tissues immediately beneath the skin. This can stimulate relief in a painful meniscus, IT band, and the medial and collateral tendons of the knee.
NIR light absorbs deeper into the body, where it can penetrate bone and tough connective tissue in the knee joint. This results in relief from inflammation and promotes the regrowth of cartilage deep in the knee.
Combine red (630nm and 660nm) and NIR (810nm, 830nm, and 850nm) wavelengths for the maximum therapeutic results. Only one device on the market offers these wavelengths in the optimal combination: the PlatinumLED BIOMAX series.
- Choose the right panel.
A small panel like the BIOMAX 450 can treat knee injuries. To experience the greatest range of effects, the larger panels (BIOMAX 600 or 900) can be used individually or linked together for full-body red light treatment.
- Consistent use is best.
Expose bare skin to the light for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, three to five times per week. The initial treatment could range from one to four months, depending on the severity of your knee pain. You can continue indefinitely to support your knees.
Pre-workout red light sessions can boost performance, as shown in a 2013 meta-analysis of red light therapy for athletes. The researchers found that red light exposure before workouts can improve performance, reduce exercise-induced muscle damage, and improve recovery.
A 2016 study involving a pair of identical twins found that post-workout red light sessions can promote healing of running injuries and chronic joint pain.
How to Treat Runner’s Knee Fast and Other Ailment: Additional Treatments
Along with P.R.I.C.E., here are other ways to support your knees.
- Improve Recovery
If you’ve been pushing through muscle pain and running with stiff and achy muscles due to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), you could be contributing to knee pain because of altered biomechanics.
Red light therapy can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and help you maintain a loose, flexible stride that allows natural joint movement.
- Strength Training
Generally, the best way to prevent pain after running and prevent runner's knee is to improve the strength and flexibility of your quadriceps muscles. This is especially true of the vastus medialis oblique (VMO) muscle, to stabilize the knee to ensure that your patella tracks properly. Leg extensions, squats, and lunges are great knee-strengthening exercises.
However, don't focus on the quadriceps exclusively. Muscle imbalances refer to both strength and flexibility, so make sure that your strength training program develops the entire leg, as well as the core muscles that stabilize your upper body. The forces exerted by the movement of your upper body are directly transferred to the knees.
Aim for overall flexibility. Tightness in the hamstrings can cause you to alter your stride and put excess stress on the knee, but so can tightness in the hips, calves, and lower back.
Avoid stretching cold muscles before you run. While stretching before a run will help prevent injury, warm up first with a brisk walk, and then do some gentle non-bouncing stretches, never to the point of pain.
Yoga is one of the best ways to ensure that all parts of your body become looser, more flexible, and stronger.
- Proper Footwear
Whether you pronate (roll the ankle inward) or supinate (roll the ankle outward), too little or too much foot rotation can increase your risk of injury. A change in running shoes may put your foot in a neutral position for better alignment between the foot, knee, and hip to reduce the force exerted on them during activity.
Yes, they’re expensive, but replace running shoes frequently to avoid compressing the soles to the point your shoes cause misalignment.
- Patellar Tendon Straps
Patellar tendon straps can help ease pain. Be sure you address the cause first, which is usually an imbalance in both muscle strength and flexibility.
- Reduce Mileage
If the problems you’re experiencing result from “too much too fast,” such as overenthusiastic early-season training, the best remedy is to stop running temporarily. This will give your body a chance to recover instead of pushing it harder and harder.
Once symptoms go away, you can start to increase mileage very slowly and conservatively. It’s always better to run a shorter distance (and slower) and still do some running rather than pushing yourself too hard and then be laid up with an injury.
Cross-training falls roughly into the strength training, stretching, and reduced mileage approaches to treat runner's knee and other knee injuries. Cycling, walking, yoga, and swimming are great complementary exercises to your regular training.
- Work with a Coach
A coach can assess and change your stride to support healthy knee movement, aiming to develop a loose, free, and easy stride rather than a tense stride.
- Run on Trails
Running on natural surfaces as opposed to pavement can cushion the impact and strengthen the leg naturally. Humans are designed to run on uneven surfaces, where the stride is constantly being altered in terms of lateral movement, length, and height. This dynamic exercise helps build stability that constant, repetitive pounding on pavement can never achieve.
- Listen To Your Body
Many runners are guilty of pushing through knee pain when they know they should be resting—which ultimately results in doing more damage.
It’s one thing to push through muscle fatigue or mental fatigue, and quite another to push through knee pain. When in doubt, take a few days off with active recovery and manage factors you can control, such as distance, speed, footwear, stride length, stretching, and strengthening.
And, support your body’s natural healing mechanisms with red light therapy.
Check out a blog by Rachel Callahan, a mom/runner who used red light to overcome severe pain, and is now blowing past her previous PRs.
Get Back To Your Sport Faster with Red Light
Clinical research has successfully demonstrated how red light therapy treats knee pain. When used in conjunction with conventional therapies that address the specific causes of running-related pain, you may be able to get back to your sport faster—and enjoy a pain-free experience—than with traditional methods alone.
Read the PlatinumLED blog to find out about the dozens of ways LED panels can boost your health, treating everything from weight loss to firmer skin to relief from low back pain, and much more. You’ll see why a quality LED red light therapy panel could become an essential part of your daily self-care routine.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q. Can I use red light therapy in my ankle and foot area?
Ans: Yes, you can use it. All the directions come with the red light therapy device.
Q. How close do I get to the red light when taking the therapy?