Popliteus Muscle: Pain in the Back of the Knee

 What symptoms and pain are associated with the popliteus muscle?

Popliteus Muscle Pain Pattern

The popliteus muscle causes pain behind the knee.

  • Pain in the back of the knee
  • Pain behind the knee when straightening the leg
  • Inability to lock the knee
  • Pain in the back of the knee when walking or running
  • Pain behind the knee when crouching or bending the knee deeply
  • Pain is worse walking down an incline or stairs

Where is the popliteus muscle?

The popliteus attaches to the outside of  the thigh bone (femur) just above the back of the knee, running diagonally to insert on the top of the tibia, the larger bone of the lower leg.

What movements does the popliteus control?

  • Assists with bending the knee
  • Helps to rotate (turn) the lower leg inward

Activities that cause popliteus pain and symptoms:

  • Running and twisting the knee when changing directions
  • Sliding when running
  • Slipping when walking
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Basketball
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Track and Field
  • Hiking downhill
  • Downhill skiing
  • Sitting for long periods of time


Popliteus muscle of the knee

Popliteus muscle unlocks the knee joint allowing the knee to bend.

Interesting facts about the popliteus

  • The popliteus muscle is vital to unlocking the straightened knee and is nicknamed the “key that unlocks the knee”.
  • Wearing a knee brace often aggravates the popliteus and makes pain worse.

Clinical diagnoses to which the popliteus muscle symptoms may contribute:

  • Popliteus tendinitis
  • Baker’s cyst
  • Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
  • Avulsion of popliteus tendon
  • Injured meniscus and other knee ligaments and tendons


Other muscles that should be considered and examined in conjunction with the popliteus muscle:

For detailed anatomy information see: Popliteus Muscle Anatomy

Help For Popliteus Muscle Knee Pain

When dealing with knee pain one of the first treatments many consider is a knee brace. While a brace may help with other types of knee injury and chronic pain, a brace or wrapping is usually NOT recommended for the popliteus muscle or pain behind the knee. Do not wrap or use a brace unless it is recommended by a medical professional. 

Cold Therapy for Popliteus Muscle Injury and Sudden Onset Pain

If you suspect you have injured the popliteus muscle or have sudden onset pain behind the knee, cold therapy should  be your first course of treatment. I recommend the ColePak Comfort Ice Pack for use with behind the knee pain. Using a pillow to prop up your leg, place the cold pack between the pillow and your knee. The pillow provides support for the knee and will help keep the knee slightly bent to provide better treatment and relieve muscle stress. You can use cold therapy for 20 minutes per hour for the first 48 hours. Do not use cold therapy for more than 20 minutes at a time as longer use of  ice or cold packs can cause tissue damage. The ColePak has two gel filled packs that remain soft and pliable when frozen.  The packs can also be used for heat treatment. It is a multi-use pack and can be used for most areas of the body. For additional help with pain relief use with BioFreeze.

Biofreeze is recommended for recent muscle injury
Biofreeze Pain Relieving Gel is an excellent pain relieving gel used by professional therapist and trainers. I highly recommend it for recent injuries and sudden onset pain.  Biofreeze is better than warm therapy gels and creams for recent muscle pain caused by injury as it cools the area much like ice and does not promote swelling. A recent study showed that Biofreeze decreased muscle pain in the neck  2 times more than ice and the pain relief lasts 9 – 10 longer.  I like to use Biofreeze before applying cold packs or ice to help eliminate those 1-3 minutes of discomfort when applying cold to a muscle.   Rub Biofreeze around the knee, wait a couple of minutes and then use your cold pack. The gel is perfectly safe to use with ice, but never use Biofreeze with heat, it will blister the skin!

Heat Therapy For Popliteus Muscle Pain

For chronic pain behind the knee or for pain lasting 48 hours past popliteus injury, heat therapy generally provides the most relief for pain and tightness. For heat therapy, I again recommend the ColePak Comfort Ice Pack. Using the pillow method described above, use the heat pack behind the knee for up to 30 minutes several times a day.

Once the 48 hours have passed, if there is still swelling from an injury, alternating cold to treat the inflammation and heat to relax the muscles and improve circulation is advised. 10 minutes of cold followed by 10 minutes of heat several times a day can help relieve pain and stiffness.

Sombra Warm Therapy Gel provides pain relief.

Sombra Warm Therapy Pain Relieving Gel is a favorite of my clients for  heat therapy and pain relief for muscle pain. Sombra heats comfortably without burning and begins providing pain relieve within minutes. It can be applied several times a day if needed and is excellent for arthritic knees.  Do not apply Sombra before using a heating or cold pack as it can cause blistering to the skin. However, it is excellent to use after a heat treatment to prolong the heating effects and provide pain relief.

Self Treatment for Popliteus Muscle Knee Pain

Do you know that small knots, taunt bands and other dysfunction in the popliteus muscle can cause pain behind the knee and make it difficult to fully straighten or lock the knee?

The Trigger Point Workbook can help you resolve trigger point pain of the popliteus muscle.
These knots or tight bands are called trigger points and if left untreated can cause deep aching in the back of the knee. A trigger point in the popliteus muscle is often the cause of pain behind the knee after ligament and tendon surgery.  If you have unresolved pain behind the knee I recommend Claire Davies book  The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief. Mr. Davies explains trigger points and muscle pain in plain everyday language that is easy to understand.  His diagrams and instructions help you find and treat trigger points throughout the body.  If you are dealing with pain behind the knee and have not been able to find an effective treatment, I highly recommend this book. It takes time and practice to master finding trigger points, but once you do, you will have an effective self treatment for not only knee pain, but for muscle pain throughout the body.





Leave a Comment