What is the treatment for iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome? Runners you better read up and understand what could be in your future

Iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome facts

  • Iliotibial band syndrome is an overuse injury of the connective issues that are located on the outer thigh and knee.
  • The iliotibial band runs along the lateral or outside aspect of the thigh, from the pelvis to the tibia, crossing both the hip and knee joints. The iliotibial band is an important stabilizer structure of the lateral part of the knee as the joint flexes and extends.
  • Inflammation and irritation of the iliotibial band can occur as it travels back and forth, crossing the bony prominence of the femoral epicondyle as the knee flexes and extends.
  • Iliotibial band syndrome is an overuse injury causing pain on the outside part of the knee especially during running when the heel strikes the ground.
  • Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) and anti-inflammatory medications are first-line treatments.
  • Physical therapy may be helpful. Surgery is rarely an option and is sometimes suggested for patients who develop chronic inflammation and who fail to respond to other treatment options.
  • Prevention that includes maintaining flexibility and strength of the low back, hips, knees, and leg muscles, and is key to avoiding recurrence.
  • Iliotibial band syndrome is sometimes called ITBS, IT band syndrome, ITB syndrome, and ITBFS (iliotibial band friction syndrome).

What is iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome?

Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS or IT band syndrome) is an overuse injury of the connective tissues that are located on the lateral or outer part of thigh and knee. It causes pain and tenderness in those areas, especially just above the knee joint. Iliotibial band syndrome is the most common cause of lateral knee painin runners and bicyclists.

The iliotibial band is a thick band of fascia (tissue) that begins at the iliac crest in the pelvis, runs down the lateral or outside part of the thigh, and crosses the knee to attach into the top part of the tibia or shinbone. It forms from the tensor fascia lata and two of the gluteal muscles (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) in the buttock and then stretches across the knee. The iliotibial (IT) band helps stabilize the outside part of the knee through its range of motion.

The iliotibial band is one of the hip abductor muscles, moving the hip away from the midline. The iliotibial band also helps with both knee flexion and extension.

Picture of the iliotibial band

Picture of the iliotibial (IT) band

When the knee is flexed, the IT band is located behind the femoral epicondyle, a bony outcropping of the femur or thighbone at the knee joint. The IT band moves forward across the condyle when the knee is extended. There is a sac or bursa that allows the band to glide smoothly across the condyle, but should inflammation occur in this area, the increased friction from repeatedly rubbing the iliotibial band across the bony condyle can cause pain, especially along the outer (lateral) aspect of the knee joint.

If the symptoms are ignored, the inflammation can continue and scarring develop in the bursa, decreasing knee range of motion and causing increasing pain with decreasing activity.

What causes iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome?

Iliotibial band inflammation is an overuse syndrome that occurs most often in long-distance runners, bicyclists, and other athletes who repeatedly squat. The iliotibial band syndrome may be the result of a combination of issues, including poor training habits, poor flexibility of muscle, and other mechanical imbalances in the body, especially involving the low back, pelvis, hips, and knees.

There can be a predisposition to develop IT band syndrome. Anatomy issues may include differences in the lengths of the legs (a leg-length discrepancy), an abnormal tilt to the pelvis, or bowed legs (genu varum). These situations can cause the iliotibial band to become excessively tight, leading to increased friction and irritation when the band crosses back and forth across the femoral epicondyle during activity.

Training errors may cause runners to develop iliotibial band syndrome symptoms. Roads are canted or banked with the center of the road higher than the outside edge to allow for water runoff. If a runner always runs on the same side of the road, it produces the same effect on the body as having a leg-length discrepancy. One leg is always downhill compared to the other, and the pelvis has to tilt to accommodate the activity. Running too many hills can also cause inflammation of the IT band. Running downhill is especially stressful on the IT band as it works to stabilize the knee.

Bicyclists may develop IT band inflammation should they have improper posture on their bike and “toe in” when they pedal. The issue may be how the toe clips are aligned, forcing the foot to be internally rotated, toed in. This can cause the same effect as bowed legs, increasing the angle of the IT band as it crosses the knee and increasing the risk of inflammation.

Other activities with increased knee flexion can cause symptoms and include rowing and weight lifting, especially with excessive squatting.

How do health-care professionals diagnose iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome?

Often, the diagnosis of iliotibial band syndrome can be made by the patient’s story of symptoms. The patient describes the progression of lateral knee pain that is made worse when the heel strikes the ground. Physical examination is helpful because the area of pain can often be palpated with tenderness and swelling felt over the femoral epicondyle, where the bursa or sac is located.

The health-care professional may also look for leg-length discrepancy, muscle imbalance, and tightness in the legs and back. There is tenderness of the outer thigh just above the knee joint, while the knee and hip joints themselves are normal to examination.

Usually, a full physical examination of the low back and legs, including the hips, knees, and ankles, is performed to detect other potential causes of lateral knee pain.

Plain X-rays are not usually required to help with the diagnosis, but MRI may be used to look for inflammation surrounding and beneath the iliotibial band. The MRI can also exclude other causes of outer knee pain. These include torn cartilage (lateral meniscus tear), sprained lateral collateral ligament, muscle tendon inflammation, and problems between the kneecap and the femur (patellofemoral pain). Most often, X-rays and MRI images are not needed.

What is the treatment for iliotibial band (IT band) syndrome?

Iliotibial band syndrome is an overuse injury that causes inflammation. Initial treatment includes rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE).

Anti-inflammatory medications, like ibuprofen (AdvilMotrin) and naproxen (Aleve), may be helpful. Note that any over-the-counter medications can have potential side effects, as well as interactions with prescription medications. If questions or concerns exist, it is wise to ask a health-care professional or pharmacist about their safe use.

Home treatment can involve stretching, massage, and use of foam rollers at the site of pain and inflammation.

Should these first-line treatments not work, physical therapy may be needed to decrease the inflammation at the IT band. Some treatments focus on flexibility and stretching. Friction rubbing may occur over the IT band at the femoral epicondyle may help to break down inflammation and scarring.

Therapeutic ultrasound techniques may be used, including phonopheresis (ultrasound propels anti-inflammatory medications through the skin into the inflamed tissue) and iontophoresis (electricity is used instead of ultrasound) to help decrease irritation in the soft tissues surrounding the knee.

The physical therapist may also help evaluate the underlying cause of the problem and look at muscle strength and balance and/or flexibility and gait analysis (watching a person walk, run, or cycle). Shoe orthotics may be useful if there is a gait problem, pelvic tilt, or leg-length discrepancy as a potential cause of IT band syndrome.

Corticosteroids (dexamethasonemethylprednisolone, hydrocortisone) injected at the site of inflammation may be of benefit.

It is unusual that the conservative nonsurgical treatment fails to help. However, orthopedic surgery may be an option for patients who fail conservative (nonoperative) treatment. Arthroscopy can be used to find the inflammation surrounding the iliotibial band and cut it away. This inflammation and scarring is often found in the lateral recess of the knee between the IT band and the femoral epicondyle. Other surgical options may be available, including cutting out a small triangular part of the IT band to lengthen the band and allow more room for it to slide across bone. Before surgery is considered, other potential causes of lateral knee pain are usually considered. These include lateral meniscus tear and chondromalacia.

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