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Is IT Band Tendinitis Really a Tendinitis?

Recent research has clearly shown that the IT band itself is not the anatomy that gets inflamed, which has significant implications for treatment

Paul Ingraham, updated

This short article introduces you to a basic concept in IT band pain that surprises almost everyone, including doctors and physical therapists.

Iliotibial band syndrome is a mysterious condition. It’s amazing how many things we still don’t understand about. You would think that science would have mastered a little thing like this long ago! But that’s not the case.

For instance, it was only recently discovered that the IT band does not actually “rub” across the side of the knee, as the conventional wisdom had always assumed (it even used to be called IT band friction syndrome for this reason).

In 2007, John Fairclough of University of Wales Institute, with seven coauthors, challenged the definition of iliotibial band syndrome, and even of the iliotibial band itself, in a paper published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. They presented a compelling analysis, concluding that “the perception of movement of the ITB across the epicondyle is an illusion.”

They were basically suggesting that the function and anatomy of the iliotibial band has been misunderstood and oversimplified for decades!

And then again in 2008 this new idea was strongly validated by a new study. Michels et al operated on 35 knees, trying to solve IT band syndrome in a completely new way, based on the new understanding of the anatomy. If the new theory was wrong, their procedure would be pointless and ineffective. But it worked!

So what’s actually inflamed?

If the iliotibial band is not the irritated structure in ITBS … what is?

The most likely suspect is actually a layer of fat and loose connective tissue pinched between the iliotibial band and the knee! And this isn’t just an educated guess: it is supported by MRI studies, which provide good evidence that it is a layer of tissue under the iliotibial band that is inflamed (an abnormal appearance in the scan compared to healthy knees). Dissection study has also shown evidence of this. And of course there is also the brand new study by Michels et al mentioned above.

So it’s not so much a “tendinitis” as a “layer-of-fat-itis.”

Other problems with the conventional wisdom

Oy, where do I start?!

If IT band syndrome isn’t really a tendinitis, exactly, then most of the conventional wisdom already has to go out the window right there. But there are numerous other problems and surprises, like the fact that researchers have also found that people with iliotibial band syndrome don’t have tight IT bands! Or at least, no more than anyone else.

Hip strengthening, often optimistically believed to be a cure for this condition, is under heavy scientific attack the past couple years.

An a array of structural problems such as short legs and tilted pelvises, once assumed to be the root cause of the problem, are looking less and less likely to have anything to do with runner’s knee.

So, what should you do?

You cannot actually expect to get good advice from most doctors and therapists about ITBS. Your knee pain is an important problem to you, but to most professionals it’s just a trivial entry in a textbook — probably an old textbook, that doesn’t come within ten years of including this new information. In school, I probably studied no more than a paragraph about ITBS, and perhaps I answered a single test question about the condition in three years of training. I would estimate that less than 1% of professionals have a firm grip on recent IT band science.

Fortunately, most people with IT band “tendinitis” recover reasonably well with a little rest and ice. However, many cases do become chronic, especially if some unwise trainer or therapist advises you to try to exercise your way out of it (bad idea, by the way). If you’re serious about your knees, it’s well worth it to learn all about iliotibial band syndrome … and learn it sooner rather than later.

An extremely detailed iliotibial band syndrome tutorial

In addition to hands-on therapy, I make my living by studying pain problems like iliotibial band syndrome for years, and then publishing and selling extremely best-in-class tutorials about them. I have published eight such tutorials since 1999. I set out to make each one of them the single best resource on the subject. My ITBS tutorial has always been the most popular of them — so many people have the condition, and so many people have gotten frustrated by ineffective treatment, that the tutorial seems to have found an extremely large (and grateful) audience. For many years now my tutorial has been the best thing you can find on the subject … and it is still constantly improved by reader feedback and by integrating new scientific evidence. There’s simply nothing else like it.

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Q. What do I get, exactly? A. Payment unlocks 62 more chapters of a book-length webpage, a total of 72 chapters and 69,000 words. Access is permanent, including several updates per year. An audiobook version is also included. Plus …

  • Free second book! When you buy this tutorial, you will automatically get a second (huge) book all about “trigger points,” because these common sore spots may be an important factor in some cases.more
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69,000 words
72 sections
199 footnotes

all myths & controversies
all diagnostic issues
all treatment options
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Bogus ideas about and bad treatments: IT Band syndrome myths are common
  • 1.2 IT band syndrome symptoms
  • 1.3 Are you in the right place? Patellofemoral versus IT band pain
  • 1.4 An orphan injury: IT band syndrome neglected by science
  • 2 Nature of the Beast
    What causes iliotibial band syndrome?
  • 2.1 The conventional wisdom
  • 2.2 Friction syndrome? So where’s the rub?
  • 2.3 So is it a tendon or what? IT bands are special
  • 2.4 What’s actually irritated? Not the IT band …
  • 2.5 A new surgery works without loosening anything tight
  • 2.6 The bursitis possibility
  • 2.7 Like a rock in your shoe: the mechanism of irritation and the red herring of tightness
  • 2.8 Why does IT band pain gets so nasty so fast? A vicious cycle related to running pace
  • 2.9 What are the root causes of iliotibial band syndrome?
  • 2.10 “Maybe you’re just not built for running”
  • 2.11 Where’s the fire? The inflammation myth
  • 2.12 What’s muscle got to do with it? The role of trigger points (muscle knots)
  • 2.13 Hip and thigh pain: part of the problem, or red herring?
  • 2.14 When ITBS isn’t a repetitive strain injury
  • 2.15 Does the iliotibial band move after all?
  • 3 Diagnosis
    How do you know you’ve got iliotibial band syndrome?
  • 3.1 Should you get an MRI?
  • 3.2 Knee pain getting you “down”? ITBS and descent pain
  • 3.3 ITBS vs. PFPS: A more detailed comparison, with checklists
  • 3.4 What about the hips? Could hip pain be ITBS?
  • 3.5 Could there be something else wrong, deeper inside the knee?
  • 3.6 Is patellar misalignment evidence of a tight IT band?
  • 3.7 Misdiagnosis horror story #1: Not even wrong
  • 3.8 Misdiagnosis horror story #2: The strange case of Ms. Strange
  • 3.9 Misdiagnosis horror story #3: X-ray for iliotibial band syndrome? No!
  • 3.10 Other possible diagnoses and sources of diagnostic confusion
  • 3.11 The noise, noise, noise! The significance of knee snaps, crackles, and pops
  • 4 Prognosis
    What’s the worst case scenario for iliotibial band syndrome?
  • 4.1 The risk of recurrence
  • 4.2 Special warning to hikers
  • 4.3 Can you “run through” iliotibial band syndrome?
  • 5 Treatment
    What can you do about iliotibial band syndrome?
  • 5.1 So what’s the plan?
  • 5.2 Some important things to keep in mind about placebos
  • 5.3 Steroid injections: a complicated mix of certain risks and uncertain rewards
  • 5.4 The old surgery: snipping the band
  • 5.5 The new surgery: excision of tissue from under the IT band
  • 5.6 Ibuprofen and friends: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), especially Voltaren® Gel
  • 5.7 Icing: more is better?
  • 5.8 Contrast hydrotherapy: exercising tissues with quick temperature changes
  • 5.9 INTERLUDE: “I have a lot of money for you if you would just lie to me about what works”
  • 5.10 The art of rest: the biggest challenge and opportunity for patients who have supposedly “tried everything”
  • 5.11 The fear of rest, and relative resting: how to maintain fitness while protecting your knees
  • 5.12 Hip strengthening is badly over-hyped
  • 5.13 IT band massage, foam rollers, and Graston Technique® — a big fat waste of time and/or money
  • 5.14 Mis-treatment horror story: intense massage on an obviously inflamed thigh
  • 5.15 Trigger point therapy for your hips, glutes, quads, and calves
  • 5.16 Deep transverse friction massage
  • 5.17 Stretching to prevent or treat IT band syndrome
  • 5.18 The trouble with stretching the IT band in particular
  • 5.19 Some stretching hope: a better iliotibial stretch?
  • 5.20 Mobilize and stretch the hip musculature
  • 5.21 Soft knee straps (and/or Kinesio Taping) are worth a shot
  • 5.22 Orthotics for IT band syndrome: a worthwhile long shot
  • 5.23 Should you run naked? On faddish running styles and running shoes (or the lack thereof)
  • 5.24 Hitting the road: shoes, surfaces, impact, and the spring in your step
  • 5.25 ITBS and leg length
  • 5.26 Pacing: run less, but run fast!
  • 5.27 Don’t bother with Traumeel
  • 5.28 Some nuggets of wisdom about long term prevention
  • 5.29 Brief debunkery of several therapies that you should be particularly skeptical of
  • 6 Now what?
    An action-oriented summary of recommendations
  • 7 Appendices
  • 7.1 Appendix A: My own iliotibial band syndrome story … grizzly bears included
  • 7.2 Reader feedback … good and bad
  • 7.3 Acknowledgements
  • 7.4 What’s new in this tutorial?
  • 7.5 Notes
dots before headings indicate updated sections ?There’s a detailed description of all updates at the bottom of the tutorial, and it’s nice to be able to see what’s new at a glance in the table of contents. Any section updated in the last 400 days is marked (hotter colours = fresher updates).

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Q. Who sells this? A. PainScience.com is a small business in Vancouver, Canada, run by me, Paul Ingraham, sole author and publisher since 2007.

Q. Does the book offer a “cure” for IT band pain? A. No. I sell education about a notoriously tricky condition, not false hope. There’s nothing “too good to be true” here.

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Q. Can I give it to my clients? A. I have a generous lending policy, but not that generous. 😉 Please recommend buying it, or consider my bulk purchase program.

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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.