There is not a single sport where the knee does not play a critical role in the success of the athlete playing that sport.

Most athletes, because they tend to continuously push their bodies to do better and more than they have done in the past, will experience a little pain with a knee at one point or another in their career. The problem occurs when a small, nagging knee ache becomes a large, painful knee ache.

Chondromalacia is a likely cause of that progressive knee pain. It’s a fancy word for a very un-fancy and typical problem of progressive knee pain. So, what exactly is it, how does it happen to you, and how do you treat it before it ruins your athletic career?

What Is Chondromalacia?


Chondromalacia is a condition wherein the cartilage of the patella or kneecap is gradually softened through extensive use, causing it to break down. Ultimately, the cartilage breakdown leads to the kneecap rubbing directly against the knee joint. That’s when the pain starts. The more the cartilage breaks down, the more the kneecap is exposed to the joint, the more pain that you will experience.

Chondromalacia is also known as “Runner’s Knee,” “Rough Kneecap Syndrome,” and “Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome.” That may be a lot of names, but they all refer to the same condition. And whichever name you give it, the causes, treatment, and prevention are all the same.

What Is Chondromalacia?

Because of the fact that the breakdown of cartilage which is the hallmark of chondromalacia happens over a period of time and not usually due to any trauma with the knee, this condition is most often seen in athletes as a direct result of overuse of or stress placed on the knee.

However, there are a few other known causes of chondromalacia to consider beyond overuse.

  • Muscles or bones that are incorrectly aligned around the knee joint
  • Rheumatoid arthritis developing around the knee
  • Recurring steroid injections into the knee
  • Muscle imbalance around the knee
  • Significant trauma to the knee, including breaking or dislocating the kneecap
  • Recurring bleeding in the knee joint

Can Anything Prevent Chrondromalacia?

There are three things you can do that are known to prevent the onset of chondromalacia.

  1. Lose Weight – Decreasing pressure on the kneecap will help to keep you from developing chondromalacia. An effective way to do that is to lose weight. Even a few pounds can make a difference, but make sure to consult your doctor before ramping up or beginning an exercise and/or diet regimen.
  2. Scale Workouts Correctly – As an example, don’t decide to do 12 miles as part of training for a marathon if the longest distance you’ve run to that point is three miles. Expecting the body to be able to complete large physical feats without adequate training can help bring on chondromalacia.
  3. Work on Building Up Your Thigh Muscles – Your knee is able to keep its alignment better when the muscles that support it are in good shape. Keeping your thigh muscles strong is a key part of the support athletes need to protect their knees.

What Symptoms Will I Experience if I Have Chondromalacia?

If you are an athlete and experience any of these symptoms in your knee, contact your doctor to get them checked out to make sure everything is okay.

  1. Swelling or puffiness in the knee area
  2. Dull ache behind the patella (kneecap)
  3. Occasional locking of the knee (unable to move it beyond a certain point)
  4. Occasional buckling of the knee where it just stops supporting you
  5. Increase in pain while going up and down stairs
  6. Creaky or grinding sound when you use your knee
  7. Increase in pain in the knee area after you have been sitting for long periods

How Will My Doctor Diagnose Me with Chondromalacia?

Your doctor will want to thoroughly examine your knee and get your medical history before diagnosing you with chondromalacia. He or she might ask you about how your knee and your medical history.

  • Have you experienced any injuries to your knee including breaking your patella, or spraining or injuring the meniscus (different knee cartilage)?
  • Have you ever had knee surgery of any kind?
  • Have you ever had an infected knee joint?
  • Have you ever experienced arthritis in your knee?
  • Have you ever had bleeding inside your knee joint?

Additionally, your doctor should ask you about your hobbies and recreational activities, like whether you play any sports. Since many people who are diagnosed with chondromalacia are athletes, this is important information to have ready for your physician. You’ll want to list what sports you play now, which sports you have played in the past, and roughly how long you participated in those activities so he or she can get an accurate picture of what’s happening. You should also make note of any daily workouts you do and if you’ve changed that recently.

Finally, your doctor will check your knee for any abnormalities – swelling, puffiness, tenderness, etc. – and compare it to your other knee. He or she might also order an MRI as chondromalacia can’t be diagnosed from an X-ray.

What Are the Treatments for Chondromalacia?

Here comes the good news for anyone diagnosed with chondromalacia. The damage can likely heal over time, leaving you with a fully-functioning knee. To help with your healing, here are some things a doctor might suggest.

  • Rest – A critical part to healing is resting the painful knee and taking a break from all sports and workout activities. Your doctor may also suggest taking ibuprofen as a pain reliever, as it’s also an anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Physical Therapy – After a period of rest, your doctor could recommend physical therapy. A therapist will be able to give you specific exercises that strengthen your hip muscles and the muscles that surround the knee to give it extra support as it heals and going forward. Strengthening the muscles also helps to keep the knee aligned properly.
  • Surgery – This is only a last resort as the vast majority of people diagnosed with chondromalacia will heal on their own without surgery. However, surgery is necessary if a piece of cartilage has come loose and is floating around the knee area.

As you heal, and at the direction of your doctor or your physical therapist, you will like be able to start gradually increasing your workouts. You’ll likely begin with things that are low-impact for your knee, like swimming, and work your way back up to your regular workouts and sports participation.

What Is My Prognosis after I Have Been Diagnosed with Chondromalacia?

As we said, the good news is that you will likely heal completely with this. The catch is that you need to make sure you give your knee the proper time to heal. Playing on your knee with even a little bit of residual pain can cause renewed damage and put you right back to the start of the healing process again. If you take your time and let your knee heal fully, you should be back on your chosen playing field within four to six months.

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