Your iliotibial (IT) bands are thick lengths of connective tissue that run from each hip to the outside of the tibia (shin bone) just below the knee; they steady the femur and stabilize your knee joint. Every time you flex and extend your knee, they glide over a knob of knee bone called the lateral epicondyle and its neighboring bursa sac. When IT bands tighten up, however, they don’t so much glide as hiccup over that bump, causing pain on the outside of the knee that may radiate up to the hip.
This condition is known as iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), and its causes range from repetitive activity to various biomechanical abnormalities. Weakness of the muscles that attach to the IT bands — often the glutes, but also the hamstrings and quads — can contribute to the problem.
Treatment usually consists of foam rolling and massaging the IT bands and muscles that attach to them. “Strengthening the hips and glutes can also prevent undue biomechanical stress on the IT bands,” says Phil Malloy, PT, a physical therapist based in Chicago. In addition, he suggests having your gait analyzed to address specific areas of tightness and weakness.
A physical therapist can diagnose ITBS using specific tests, but most of us could stand to loosen up our IT bands. Try the following two exercises for three sets of 10 to 15 reps three times a week. Malloy says you should notice a difference in approximately four to six weeks.
IT Band Foam Roll
- Lie on your side with the foam roller positioned perpendicular to your bottom leg, just below your hipbone. Position your upper leg in front of you for balance.
- Using your hands for support, roll from the top of your outer thigh down to just above your knee, straightening your front leg as you go. Pause over any spots where the tissue feels especially tight or knotted, and hold for at least 10 seconds. Reverse the motion, rolling from your knee back up to your hip. Repeat on your other leg.
- Lie on one side, flexing your hips to 30 degrees and your knees to 90 degrees.
- Keeping your heels touching and pelvis perfectly still (this is important!), lift your top knee slightly by contracting your glutes, then return to the start.
- Repeat the movement slowly 10 to 15 times before switching sides.