Why Does the Outside of my Knee Hurt When Hiking Downhill?

Most hikers know that hiking downhill is often worse on the knees than hiking uphill. After an especially challenging hike, it can be difficult for your body to transition to downhill hiking  – and this is often when various pains start to appear. If you’re having pain on the outside of your knee while hiking downhill, you may be wondering what’s causing that pain and is there any way to stop it?

Pain on the outside of your knee while hiking downhill is often due to the excessive force placed on your knee and surrounding muscles when hiking downhill. In extreme cases, it can be due to an inflamed iliotibal band, which requires medical oversight and treatment. 

Let’s explore why outside knee pain may occur while hiking downhill, if there’s any way to prevent it, and how you should go about treating it. 

pain on the outside of your knee while hiking downhill

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What Causes the Pain on the Outside of my Knee While Hiking Downhill?

If you’re having knee pain, you’re going to want to know what causes it. Knee pain is primarily due to the immense about of force your body is placing on your knee and surrounding muscles while hiking. 

When you’re hiking downhill you’re going one leg at a time in front of the other. When your leg is in front, it’s taking the full impact of your body. But not only that, it’s taking the full impact of your body plus the additional forces of heading downhill plus the weight of whatever pack you’re carrying. 

And this can be a lot of weight. One study found that the force placed on your knee joint while walking downhill can be as much as 7 times your body weight for males and 8.5 times the body weight for females. Other studies have shown less (3-4 times the body weight), but either way it’s a lot more force than you’d typically put on your knees. 

So, is it really surprising your experiencing knee pain while hiking downhill? If your knee joint isn’t prepared to handle forces much higher than your body weight, pain is to be expected. 

What is the Iliotibal Band and Why is Causing Outer Knee Pain?

If you’re placing 4-8 times your body weight in force on your knee, it’s bound to irritate some of the components making up that joint. If the pain is on the outside of your knee, then it is likely to be caused by the Iliotibal Band. 

The Iliotibial (IT) Band is a thick band of tissue running from your hip, down the outside of your thigh, and connecting to the knee. Because it’s connected to both the knee and the hip, if the IT Band is involved you may be feeling the pain on the outside of your knee travel up your thigh to your hip. 

The IT Band causes pain when it’s irritated and inflamed. This can be due to the excessive amount of force hiking downhill causes, but also overuse of the joint often contributes as well. So if you’re hiking a lot downhill, or combining hiking with other activities hard on the knees, your IT Band very likely could be contributing to your pain. 

With that said, there are a lot of components to a knee joint, so if you’re not sure what’s causing the pain always check with a medical professional first to identify what is going on with your pain. 

Hiking downhill in line on a multi use trail

Gear to Prevent Knee Pain While Hiking Downhill

Since the issue causing the knee pain is often due to the excessive force placed on the joint when hiking downhill, you’re going to need to find ways to reduce that force. 

One of the best ways to do that is to use hiking poles. These are your best friend if you experience most types of pain while hiking (knee pain, back pain, foot pain… you get the picture).  The entire purpose of hiking poles is to reduce the force you’re putting on your lower body. So, if you’re experiencing pain you’ll need to pick these up ASAP. 

Along with the poles, you may want to take a look at your shoes. If you’re not yet hiking in hiking boots, or your hiking boots have some mileage on them, it may be time for a new pair. Supportive shoes can make a world of different in relieving pain while hiking. 

 

Techniques to Prevent Knee Pain While Hiking Downhill

If you have all the right gear and you’re still experiencing pain there are a few techniques you can try while hiking to see if it helps: 

Stepping Technique: If you’re hiking and just trying to make it to the bottom of the downhill portion without causing more pain and damage, learning some techniques to how you’re stepping on the trail can really help. These include taking smaller steps and trying to land on your heel. By employing these steps on the trail you can lower the force and reduce pressure and pain.

Stretching Before the Hike: Most people I know hate stretching. If you’ve just arrived to the trail the last thing you want to do is take 5-10 minutes to stretch before starting your hike. So, lots of hikers (including me) avoid this step. But, if you’re experiencing pain, stretching before the hike (or during any extended rest breaks) can really make a different in pain levels when hiking downhill or after the hike has finished. 

Gain Strength: This isn’t a technique as much as a good practice. Stronger muscles can handle more force. So, if you’re experiencing pain, building muscle can be a long-term solution to the pain you’re experiencing on the trail. 

How Do I Treat Pain on the Outside of My Knee From Hiking Downhill?

Listen, I’m not a medical professional so I’m going to have to recommend that you go and see one should you have serious pain that isn’t going away. Especially if you do suspect the IT Band as a factor causing your pain, you’ll want a medicaid professional to examine it as you may need some physical therapy to treat it. 

But, if you’re experiencing short-term, occasional pain from hiking downhill then rest and some anti-inflammatories will usually help a lot with reducing the pain. Active people often over do it on their bodies and don’t rest as much as they should. So, be sure to take the time your knee needs to rest, recover, and recharge so you can get back out there next time with little to no pain. 

Is the outside of your knee hurting while hiking downhill? If so I hope you’ve found some great resources here to learn more about what’s causing it, how to prevent it and how to treat it. 

For other tips like these check out our hiking tips page so you can get out on the trail completely prepared! 

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