Iliotibial band syndrome is a common knee injury that usually presents as lateral knee pain caused by inflammation of the distal portion of the iliotibial band; occasionally, however, the iliotibial band becomes inflamed at its proximal origin and causes referred hip pain. The iliotibial band is a thick band of fascia that is formed proximally by the confluence of fascia from hip flexors, extensors, and abductors. The band originates at the lateral iliac crest and extends distally to the patella, tibia, and biceps femoris tendon The pain is typically felt on the outside aspect of the knee or lower thigh.
Treatment requires activity modification, massage, and stretching and strengthening of the affected limb. The goal is to minimize the friction of the iliotibial band as it slides over the femoral condyle. The patient may be referred to a physical therapist who is trained in treating iliotibial band syndrome. Most runners with low mileage respond to a regimen of anti-inflammatory medicines and stretching; however, competitive or high-mileage runners may need a more comprehensive treatment program.
The initial goal of treatment should be to alleviate inflammation by using ice and anti-inflammatory medications. Patient education and activity modification are crucial to successful treatment. Any activity that requires repeated knee flexion and extension is prohibited. During treatment, the patient may swim to maintain cardiovascular fitness. If visible swelling or pain with ambulation persists for more than three days after initiating treatment, a local corticosteroid injection should be considered.
Corticosteroid injection for iliotibial band syndrome. Gerdy’s tubercle and the femoral condyle are marked as landmarks. With the patient in a supine or side-lying position, the needle is inserted at the point of maximum tenderness over the femoral condyle.
As the acute inflammation diminishes, the patient should begin a stretching regimen that focuses on the iliotibial band as well as the hip flexors and plantar flexors. The common iliotibial band stretches(Figure 4) have been evaluated for their effectiveness in stretching the band. The stretch shown in Figure 4C was consistently the most effective in increasing the length of the iliotibial band in a study of elite distance runners. Although this study demonstrates the effectiveness of stretching the iliotibial band, participants in the study did not have iliotibial band syndrome and studies have not demonstrated that stretching hastens recovery from the syndrome.
Stretches of the right iliotibial band
Once the patient can perform stretching without pain, a strengthening program should be initiated. Strength training should be an integral part of any runner’s regimen; however, for patients with iliotibial band syndrome particular emphasis needs to be placed on the gluteus medius muscle. A strengthening exercise geared toward the gluteus medius is shown in Figure 5.
Exercise for strengthening of the right gluteus medius muscle in a weight-bearing position. (A) The patient stands on a platform and lowers the left leg toward the ground slowly. (B) Through contraction of the right gluteus medius, the patient then elevates the leg, returning the pelvis to a level position.
Running should be resumed only after the patient is able to perform all of the strength exercises without pain. The return to running should be gradual, starting at an easy pace on a level surface. If the patient is able to tolerate this type of running without pain, mileage can be increased slowly. For the first week, patients should run only every other day, starting with easy sprints on a level surface. Most patients improve within three to six weeks if they are compliant with their stretching and activity limitations.
For patients who do not respond to conservative treatment, surgery should be considered. The most common approach is to release the posterior 2 cm of the iliotibial band where it passes over the lateral epicondyle of the femur. In a retrospective study of 45 patients who underwent surgical release of their iliotibial band, 84 percent of the patients reported that their surgery results were good to excellent.