This is my knee pain story. I am a former massage therapist in Vancouver, Canada. I am also an athlete, a writer, and I publish this large website about common pain problems that are often ineffectively treated — especially IT band syndrome, one of my own most difficult injuries. This is the story of how backpacking like an idiot gave me IT band syndrome, and my recovery as a runner.
I was struck by an extreme case of iliotibial band syndrome in both knees at once, on a solo backpacking trip in the Monashee Mountains of Canada, in the spring of 1998. For extra excitement, I even had a close encounter with a grizzly bear on that trip.
But that makes me sound more adventurous than I am.
The truth is, I am a big chicken. Many of my readers are far more “extreme” athletes than I am! Being in the woods alone spooked me — I had never attempted solo backpacking before. I got injured because I was foolish and nervous. I pushed too hard, too fast, and ended up deep in the mountains late in the day, with the trail ahead lost in snow, and the trail behind too long to retrace before nightfall.
No one had a clue where I was, and no one else was out there. This sort of situation can absolutely get you killed. It was all very Aron Ralston (127 Hours) of me.
I decided I wasn’t going to pitch a tent on the trail, and I would push to get back to the trail head … even if I had to hike in the dark for a while. I practically ran down the mountain with a fifty pound pack — big mistake!
After just an hour, both my knees started to scream with my first case of IT band syndrome. It would have been smarter to stop and camp, however dark and spooky the forest was, but my nervousness drove me onward. I just wanted to get back to the safety and security of my car!
The rest of the return hike was a knee pain nightmare. It certainly ranks as one of my most painful experiences. There were times when I felt certain I couldn’t take another step … yet somehow I did, because I knew there was an even bigger risk lurking in the dark.
Let’s take a detour and tell the grizzly part of the story. It doesn’t have much to do with knee pain, but it’s just so entertaining. I’ll tell the story in a few paragraphs and then get back to the knee pain.
Rawr! Not the actual grizzly I met — this one looks much friendlier — but there is a resemblance.
As if I didn’t have enough reasons to be nervous already, there had been a warning sign at the trail head about a mother grizzly with four cubs in the area. I’d spoken with the leader of a Girl Scout group who said, “Don’t worry about her, she’s here every year — just make noise.”
But I hadn’t counted on being back at the trail head after sundown!
So I was on high alert as I neared the trailhead. And I was almost home free, my knees burning like twin suns, when the momma grizzly found me.
Unfortunately, alertness was pointless. It was deep twilight, and there was nowhere to run, and I couldn’t run anyway, and no one out runs a grizzly even on fresh legs. She charged me on the trail, and I heard her before I saw her.
I swear I thought the following two thoughts, in this order, and I have told this story exactly like this ever since it happened:
- I guess I’m going to be maimed and killed now. Damn. This is going to hurt.
- At least I won’t have to walk any further on these knees!
And that was all I had time for. Grizzlies are fast! (Up to 34 mph, 55 kph.) She came at me like I was lying at the bottom of a cliff and she was falling on me. The idea of unlatching my bear spray from its “quick” release on my belt, pulling the safety pin, aiming, and firing … absolutely ridiculous! I think the reflex to reach for it didn’t kick in for about ten minutes. She was simply way too fast and intimidating.
And she did what grizzlies almost always do when they charge people: she veered off at the last second. I am eternally grateful, for the sake of my ego, that I somehow managed not to soil myself. When I started to move again, my knees barely worked at all. I took several minutes to cover the short distance to the parking lot. Soon I was in my car and driving back to civilization. Despite my escape, however, my ordeal was nowhere near finished: my knee pain had only just begun.
And that’s my bear story! It’s given me years of dinner-party material, and it will for the rest of my life. Now, back to iliotibial band syndrome …
The worst onset of iliotibial band syndrome ever?
Over the last ten years, my publications about iliotibial band syndrome have exposed me to literally thousands of case studies of severe iliotibial band syndrome from around the world. To this day, I still haven’t heard of a case with as nasty (or colourful) a start as my own. I win the prize for worst ITBS onset ever.
Yay for me.
Due to the napalm attacks on the sides of my knees, I quite literally could not get down stairs — which was problematic, because I lived on the third storey of an old mansion. It was about three days before I could get down. A friend brought me some groceries.
What an education in ITBS! One “good” thing about a severe case of anything is that signature symptoms tend to be really clear. Things that are subtle in a mild case become screamingly obvious in a severe case. For a therapist, having a bad case of something yourself means that you get a vivid picture of the condition. And this was classic IT band syndrome: savage hot epicentres of pain right on the sides of the knees … and dramatic spikes of pain every time I tried to take a step downwards.
But I didn’t know what I had, yet.
I learned basically nothing about iliotibial band syndrome in school
I was in the midst of my massage therapy training at that time. Massage therapy training in my part of Canada is quite advanced (similar to training for physiotherapists and chiropractors, but just three years instead of four).
Despite the intense curriculum, we hadn’t learned diddly or squat about iliotibial band syndrome, and nor would we later. ITBS barely got more than a mention in three years of studying. Most health professionals are equally poorly informed about this frustrating condition.
It’s laughable now to think that I could have ever learned anything detailed about IT band syndrome rehabilitation. If I hadn’t been forced to learn more, I doubt I would even have realized how little I knew.
The long road to IT band pain relief
It took me more than a year to recover, and I suffered flare-ups for several more years, although they became increasingly manageable. During that time, I experimented thoroughly with all the conventional treatment methods, and a few unusual ones, and I studied ITBS intensively. At least, it seemed like a lot back then.
Textbooks were as useless as my training had been — I’ve never found a book with more than a paragraph or two of stale old conventional wisdom about IT band syndrome. They are outrageously inadequate. I had to study the scientific research directly, searching databases like PubMed (still a new-fangled internet thing back then).
When the going gets tough, the tough go to the scientific literature.
That’s me, getting ready to flick the disc, back in 2001 or so.
And so, by the time I had graduated from massage therapy college in 2000, I had probably already forgotten more about IT bands than any of my classmates would ever learn in the first place. Going to a therapist or a doctor for help was a joke: I knew ten times more than any of them. I was my own therapist. I had to be!
I am an enthusiastic ultimate (Frisbee) player, so the injury was deeply frustrating to me. It’s a sport that inspires fanaticism. Just like every serious runner I’ve ever treated, it was nearly impossible to keep me from re-injuring myself. I simply would not stay off the field. Every return to play was premature. This was where I first made the observation that runners (and ultimate players) are often more of a problem than their knees. Iliotibial band syndrome isn’t stubborn — we are!
So … how did I actually beat iliotibial band syndrome?
I am not going to completely give that information away here! A fellow has to make a living, and I do it selling books about pain problems. But here’s a rough outline:
IT band syndrome is not generally stubborn because of its severity — it’s stubborn because, like a rock in your shoe, there’s no easy way for it to get less irritating. It’s almost impossible to stop stressing the irritated tissues, giving them a chance to calm down. So, for me, the magic bullets were mostly “strategic” resting — most athletes do not rest “smart” — plus megadoses of well-timed icing, plus the discovery that one of the taijiquan movements I knew was much better at stretching the iliotibial band and associated musculature than any of the conventional IT band stretches (which are amazingly useless, by the way).
What’s wrong with this picture?
She’s is not actually doing much of anything to her iliotibial band with this classic (sorta) stretch. Even if her technique was good, she wouldn’t be doing much good.
(This image is an odd choice, which I made because it’s tough to find licensable images of conventional IT band stretches, let alone ones with good technique. But I did find this dancer! Her position is a fine example, even though she is not demonstrating an ITBS stretch.)
How did I know that stretch was so effective? Because it hurt like hell. With my extreme case and ultra-sensitive knees, it was quite easy to test how different IT band stretches pulled on my screaming iliotibial band! So, for instance, this is how I first learned the importance of knee flexion in stretching the iliotibial band — a difference that was as clear to me as flicking a light switch. (This is clarified in my full tutorial.)
Becoming an IT band expert
By 2001, I suppose I thought I knew quite a lot about IT band syndrome. But in fact my journey to “expertise” had only just begun. I had only just started working with patients, and I had thousands of hours of study and writing still ahead of me.
ITBS patients seemed magically drawn to me, as word spread that I knew a thing or two about the condition. In 2002, I published a short article here on PainScience.com about it for my own patients. And then I started really researching. The article grew into a full-fledged “tutorial,” and then it got book big.
I put a price tag on it in 2007 — I was working at least 70 hours per week moonlighting as a researcher/writer, and I had to start charging for the information to fund the kind of academic perfectionism I was getting into.
Today the iliotibial band syndrome tutorial is simply the most exhaustive source of information available about iliotibial band syndrome, period. If there is anything even remotely like it, I’ve never found it. And it’s still growing and improving, after all these years.
And you can start reading it now. You can read the first few sections of the tutorial for free. You will then be asked to pay USD$1995 to continue reading it. Or you can just go ahead and buy it immediately, right here. It’s all digital, the store is secure and simple (no password or account required), and you’ll be reading the rest of the tutorial in a couple minutes.
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Save a bundle on a bundle
The e-boxed set is a bundle of all 10 book-length tutorials for sale on PainScience.com: 10 books about 10 different common injuries and pain problems. All ten topics are (all links open free intros in a new tab/window): muscle strain, muscle pain, back and neck pain, two kinds of runner’s knee (IT band syndrome and patellofemoral pain), shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and frozen shoulder. (Headache coming soon, fall of 2019.)
Most patients only need one book, because most patients have only one problem. But the set is ideal for professionals, and some keen patients do want all of them, for the education, and for lending to friends and family. And, of course, you do get a substantial discount for the bulk purchase. But no rush—complete the set later, minus the price of any books already bought. More information and purchase options.
Keep reading for free! The book page has a substantial free introduction, and there other free samples from the book and closely related articles:
- EXCERPT IT Band Stretching Does Not Work
- EXCERPT Does the IT Band Move After All?
- EXCERPT The Causes of Runner's Knee Are Rarely Obvious
- EXCERPT Do IT Band Straps Work for Runner’s Knee?
- IT Band Pain is Knee Pain, Not Hip Pain — Pain in the hip and thigh is something else, I promise
- Is IT Band Tendinitis Really a Tendinitis? — Research has clearly shown that the IT band itself is probably not the anatomy that gets inflamed … which has significant implications for treatment
- Diagnosing Runner’s Knee — It usually starts with lateral knee pain during and after runs, but there are two major types
- Is Running on Pavement Risky? — Hard-surface running might be a risk factor for running injuries like patellofemoral pain, IT band syndrome, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis
If you choose to buy, thanks in advance for your business, and please feel free to write to me about something unusual or interesting about your case. I routinely make improvements to the tutorial as a result of feedback from runners and readers and health care professionals around the world.