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Popliteus Muscle: Pain in the Back of the Knee

Popliteus Muscle Pain Pattern

The popliteus muscle causes pain behind the knee.

What are the symptoms and pain associated with the popliteus muscle?

  • 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
Popliteus muscle of the knee

The 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 referred to "the key that unlocks the knee".
  • Wearing a knee brace or wrapping the knee 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
  • S1 Radiculopathy

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

Satellite trigger points:  Plantaris, Gastrocnemius

Associated Organ System: Genitourinary System

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 other pain behind the knee. Do not wrap or use a brace unless it is recommended by a medical professional. 

Cold Therapy Gel for Popliteus Muscle Pain

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. To treat popliteus pain, rub Biofreeze around the knee, making sure to cover the area behind the knee.

Biofreeze is recommended popliteus injury treatment to reduce pain and swelling

Cold and Warm Therapy Wrap 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 the back of 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.

ColePak hot cold wrap is an excellent choice for knee treatment

Warm Therapy Gel For Popliteus Muscle Pain

Sombra Warm Therapy Pain Relieving Gel is a favorite of my clients for warm 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.

Sombra Warm Therapy Gel provides pain relief for chronic knee pain due to injury and arthritis.

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?

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.

The Trigger Point Workbook gives you a treatment option for popliteus knee pain.


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