Knee pain: Understanding the quadriceps muscles

Knee pain, Neuromuscular therapy / Friday, June 26th, 2009

Knowledge is power. The better you understand the muscles of your knee the more empowered you will be to keep them out of pain. Here’s some knowledge about the quadriceps muscles.

quadstravellIn the front of your thigh are four muscles called the quadriceps femoris, affectionately called “the quads” at the gym. Quad means four, ceps means heads, femoris refers to the thigh bone (femur). All four heads attach to the kneecap (patella) at one end, three of them attach to the upper femur at the other end, and one of the four crosses the hip joint where the hip flexes or bends. At the knee, just above and all around the patella is the patellar tendon (a tendon attaches muscle to bone) that attaches the four quads to the kneecap. Just below the patella is the patellar ligament (a ligament attaches bone to bone). So the bottom anchor of the four quads is the ligament below the knee at the top of the shin bone (tibia).

The quads act primarily to straighten your limb at the knee. They also function to control the knee when it bends like when you’re going down stairs or to exhert force to climb up stairs. So from a mechanical perspective, when the quads contract (shorten) they pull the patella up and in against the knee joint. That pressure can hurt when there’s too much of it or when there is swelling inside the joint, or during movement when it rubs back and forth on the joint. A muscle imbalance can pull the patella to one side. That can cause pain too.

Since I’m a Neuromuscular Therapist (Boston area) I have to mention Trigger Points! All of the quads have them and they refer to different parts of the knee. That’s a good way of telling which of the four quadricep heads is causing the pain. The symptoms of Trigger Points in the quads are pain and weakness, buckling or locking knee, and sleep disturbance. But remember, too, that local muscle dysfunction or ill health can cause pain.

Get the muscles healthy by stretching and moving them to get the blood in and the wastes out. Lengthen them so they can work efficiently, then begin a gentle program of non-weightbearing strengthening exercises. Building muscle mass and endurance can wait.

I’ll do a post later about stretching and strengthening, but first I want you to understand the rest of the muscles that attach to the knee. Hamstrings are next.

3 Replies to “Knee pain: Understanding the quadriceps muscles”

  1. Hi Michelle,
    Sounds exactly like the popliteus muscle to me! I wrote a post on it called “Knee pain: Understanding the popliteus and plantaris muscles.” Go to the Search box or Category box and look at the Knee pain entries to find it. There is a stretch for the “Pop” in the post on “Knee pain: 5 effective stretches.” Hope that helps. Christina

  2. Joan,
    Another comment in answer to your question. The most likely candidates are either too much tension or weakness in quadriceps first, hamstrings second and adductor magnus third. I don’t have a post on the latter yet, but it can cause a buckling knee. If the hamstrings are weak it’s hard to stand up. If the quads are too tight they can lack the power to keep your knee straight. Remember that it’s not always lack of strength that causes weakness. Christina

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