In working with a lot of athletes, and being a CrossFitter myself, I hear people complain of feeling pain behind their knees at least a handful of times a year. It is usually not pain of the kneecap itself, but feels like it is on the backside of the knee, in the Popliteal Region. The area is usually sore and if you apply deep pressure directly to the area, it will feel quite tender. In this area is a very tiny little muscle called Popliteus.
The Popliteus muscle is located on the backside of the knee joint. It crosses over the knee joint, starting on the lateral femoral condyle (outside of the knee on the lowest part of the thigh bone) and the head of the fibula. It ends on the medial side, almost horizontally, on the inner tibia. It is such a tiny muscle that is deep down and hard to find, that it is often considered an insignificant muscle in rotating the knee. Yet it can cause great pain when injured.
What is the purpose of this tiny little muscle you ask?
Because it runs almost horizontally, it actually can move in two directions depending on which attachment is fixed (the femur or the tibia). Here are some functions of the Popliteus muscle:
The Popliteus muscle can be injured due to a traumatic force or impact, but it is most often due to overuse of the muscle. It may start off gradually with tightness and a little bit of pain or an achy feel behind the knee, and then it seems to increase as you continue the same activity. When the Popliteus muscle is injured, you may experience the following:
What to do if you suspect your Popliteus is causing you pain?
Often times this muscle will be over used due to an inhibition of other major muscle groups, such as the hamstrings. I find that tight hamstrings are often the source causing the Popliteus to become overworked and sore. In most cases, the Bicep Femoris (the lateral most hamstring muscle) is too tight, limiting the rotation of the tibia on the femur. The inhibition of the hamstrings then recruits the Popliteus to engage more, in order to compensate for the lack of rotation from the hamstrings during the stance phase of your gait. To help alleviate the pain behind your knee you can do the following:
Courtney Truax, LMT is a graduate of East West College of the Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon. She is licensed through the Oregon Board of Massage Therapy and a member of the American Massage Therapy Association. She has her own studio massage practice in the heart of downtown Lake Oswego, Oregon.